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Mike Leavitt, with just a bit of a forced smile, tells a joke and then starts talking about expanding Utah's economy and doing the "real and right" thing.

Merrill Cook rises to the podium, armed with a thick notebook jammed full of numbers, and starts rattling off figures to show why Utah is in trouble, how the past eight years have provided no solutions. In a voice that at times seems a bit high-pitched, he politely says Leavitt is no answer to Utah's ills.Stewart Hanson, tall and judicial, speaks in a soft, low voice, measuring each word. He often pauses, making slow progress as he talks about the state and his vision for it.

These three gubernatorial candidates met four times this past week in debates throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Including pre-primary debates, the three have appeared together more than two dozen times. As one would expect, they've gotten into a rhythm, know basically what each other will say and how to respond.

Leavitt is well ahead in early polls, so naturally Hanson and Cook go after him. Both criticize Leavitt's support of the new Strategic Education Plan for the state, saying Leavitt isn't being candid and honest with voters in promising to implement the plan and at the same time not raise taxes.

"The Utah Taxpayers Association says the plan will cost at least $500 million more," says Cook in debate after debate. Hanson says he's being honest by saying if other economies and a restructuring of income tax brackets won't bring in enough money, he'll look at raising taxes.

Leavitt brushes their complaints aside. "I won't raise taxes, we can't afford it. Giving the same education system that isn't working more money only buys a more expensive system that isn't working," says Leavitt. He says he'll put more money into the expensive parts of the plan - teacher pay and classroom size reduction - only as state revenues naturally grow.

Cook criticizes Leavitt's four-year stint on the Board of Regents - the governing body of the state's colleges and universities - saying the board was negligent or blind in not seeing and dealing with a burst in college students.

"We have 3,000 students in higher education who are not funded," says Hanson. "It is a crisis that must be dealt with."

Leavitt responds that the board has been watching enrollments closely, but that recent downturns in major industries, like defense-related engineering, have resulted in an unprecedented and unanticipated surge in older Utahns going back to college to be retrained for another job.

In most cases, Leavitt waits to be criticized before responding. But on health care he takes the offensive - here is an issue where he thinks he has the best of Cook.

Cook suggests expanding the state's Workers Compensation Fund to include, on a voluntary basis, businesses whose employees aren't currently covered with a private health insurance package.

Wrong, says Leavitt. That would be a disaster, sucking taxpayer funds to pay health-care costs of Utahns who, for whatever reason, can't qualify for a normal private policy. Leavitt wants a private-sector solution, brokered by the governor who has political clout to force all parties to the bargaining table.

Hanson jumps in, again outlining the problem well but stopping short of giving a specific solution. Maybe it is Cook's plan. Maybe it's another, Hanson says. But he, like Leavitt, wants to wait until he's governor to put together his specific proposal.

Back and forth they struggle, touching once - before a women's legislative group - on abortion. Cook says Leavitt (who says he's strongly pro-life) has purposely misstated Cook's position. "I want to stop elective abortions, but I also think we must follow the U.S. Supreme Court decisions and not waste much needed money appealing (anti-abortion) laws that have no chance of success," says Cook.

Hanson doesn't say he is pro-choice, doesn't use that word. He says he's for choice in all areas of government, including a woman's right to choose control over her own body.

As the debates continue, no man gains greatly against the others, all making some good points, faltering on others.

Often Leavitt doesn't respond to direct challenges by Hanson or Cook, apparently feeling secure in his lead. Hanson, although third in the most recent polls, doesn't take on Cook as much as he does Leavitt - and even in that he's much restrained.

Leavitt says Cook's TV commercials critical of him are much tougher than Cook is in person in the debates. "I'm not going to scream at him," counters Cook, "but I'm saying the same things in the debates as on TV."

Republican Richard Eyre and Democrat Pat Shea, each eliminated in his party's primary election, looked forward to debating Leavitt. Both believed they would get under his skin, rattle him a little. They didn't. And unless Hanson and Cook change their tactics in the remaining debates, they won't either.