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Utahns are getting a taste of something new in state politics: The never-ending congressional campaign.

Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, was in office two months when local Republicans started a systematic, organized campaign against her.True, several votes by Shepherd - especially a vote to support President Clinton's budget/economic package that includes new taxes - certainly played into Republican hands. But it's also clear that these attacks would have come if Shepherd hadn't voted for that package.

The local Republican Party leaders have now been joined by the National Republican Committee, which is paying for a second round of radio advertisements criticizing Shepherd.

Now, I make no defense of Shepherd. Her votes stand on their own. I'm looking at the politics and strategy of the local and national Republicans.

Clearly, they think they've got a shot at beating Shepherd next year. Just as clearly, they think 18 months of bashing will take its toll. It is clearly galling to Republicans that in conservative Utah, two of three House seats are held by Democrats.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, the lone Republican in the House from Utah, touched on this during a speech at the GOP Utah State Convention last month. Hansen criticized the Legislature for not drawing the congressional boundaries tough enough in 1991 - that is, not making the 2nd District more Republican.

The general thinking is that to beat a House incumbent (remember, in 1990 about 97 percent of U.S. House incumbents who ran for re-election, won) your best shot comes in their first re-election at the end of their freshman term.

Shepherd, of course, is a freshman, winning the 2nd Congressional District in 1992 after then-Rep. Wayne Owens gave up the seat to run an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Owens is a good example of the incumbent re-election rule. A Democrat in what the demographic numbers show is a Republican district, Owens won the seat first in 1986 in an open race (no incumbent running) and won re-election in 1988 and 1990 with ever-increasing majorities.

Incumbents are tough. And the Republicans know it. While not making the 2nd District as Republican as Hansen wanted, the 1991 Legislature (controlled by Republicans) did make it more Republican.

But GOP candidate Enid Greene withered in the final campaign against Shepherd last year, and a Democrat again captured the 2nd District.

Greene was harmed, many GOP insiders believe, by an election cycle that used to place Republicans and Democrats against opponents from their own parties all summer long, with a primary election in September and only six weeks later the final November contest. The 1993 Legislature changed that. In 1994, there will be only a one-month primary season, a June primary election, and five months of head-to-head campaigning between the two party nominees before the November election. Shepherd's GOP opponent next year will have five months to go against her, not six weeks like Greene had.

Now Greene is considering running for the GOP nomination again. But it's unlikely it will be given to her without a fight. Others considering the race include, I'm told, former House Speaker Craig Moody, who ran in 1992 but was eliminated in the state GOP convention.

So, for 18 months it appears we'll have Republican attacks on Shepherd. Maybe the Republicans think they've learned from the 1992 presidential race. Remember, George Bush was a very popular president after the Persian Gulf War. His approval rating was high. But the Democrats kept after him. The economy didn't rebound like Bush counted on. He ran a lackluster campaign. And he lost.

Shepherd is certainly not in the stratosphere of popularity Bush was in 18 months before his election. And Republicans seem determined to make sure her constituents' approval only goes down.