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Leavitt D.C. hearing date set

His current, past approval ratings exceptionally high

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Once again, Gov. Mike Leavitt is headed for Washington, D.C., but next week's trip is the real deal.

The governor learned Thursday his confirmation hearing with the Senate Environment and Public Work's Committee is Sept. 18.

Leavitt, tapped by President Bush to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, plans to spend two days in the nation's capital in advance of the hearing, marking the third consecutive week of meetings with key political figures.

The hearing is expected to foster a lively platform for Democrats to beat up on Bush's environmental record, using Leavitt as the surrogate punching bag.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has already made clear she plans to block the nomination until she gets answers about an internal EPA report that misled the public about the post-9/11 health risks in lower Manhattan.

But as Leavitt prepares for the grilling, he travels to Washington next week as probably the most popular politician in Utah's history.

In a new survey by pollster Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV, Leavitt has a 75 percent approval rating.

Having three out of four of your constituents approving of the job you are doing is good for nearly all politicians.

But for Leavitt it is still a bit of a drop.

As Leavitt prepared to run for a second, four-year term in 1996, Jones found that 90 percent of Utahns approved of the job Leavitt was doing. No officeholder had ever reached that high.

Jones has been watching job approval ratings since the days of Gov. George Dewey Clyde in the 1950s. And he says Leavitt "is one of the best ever." For most of his 11 years in office, Leavitt has had approval ratings above 80 percent.

"Governors in Utah are almost always over 60 percent, some as high as 86 percent," said Jones, who also teaches political science at the University of Utah. "I think Leavitt's mean score (of approval ratings) must be the highest ever. And to have a 75 percent approval rating in his third term, that high after so long, is remarkable."

Other popular politicians, like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, rank in the 70s and possibly in the low 80s. But no one has had such approval ratings as Leavitt.

Even with his popularity, however, Leavitt is perhaps wearing on Utahns.

In 2000, Leavitt's job approval ratings dropped from the mid-80s into the 70s and have stayed there except for one 80 percent rating in March 2002 — right after Utah's successful hosting of the Winter Olympics where Leavitt played a high-profile role.

Before Bush nominated Leavitt for the EPA post in early August, the governor was preparing to announce whether he'd seek an unprecedented fourth term in 2004. Jones found in several surveys that while Utahns still liked Leavitt, less than half of those polled wanted him to run next year.

And certainly Leavitt would have had a number of credible Republicans running against him, including House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West.

In late 1999, Stephens toyed with the idea of challenging Leavitt in 2000 within the Republican Party.

Several other Republicans did run against Leavitt in 2000. The governor was booed at the state convention, and disgruntled GOP delegates forced the governor into a primary that he won against an unknown challenger.

Leavitt won re-election against Democratic challenger Bill Orton, a former congressman. But the bloom was off the rose. And right-wing Republicans have snipped at Leavitt ever since.

A resolution — withdrawn after Bush tapped Leavitt for the EPA post — was even prefiled for the 2003 State Republican Convention saying Republicans should pick someone other than Leavitt as the gubernatorial nominee in 2004.

Scott M. Matheson Jr., son of the late Gov. Scott M. Matheson, the state's last Democratic governor, is also in the race. So while leading all GOP challengers in a recent Jones poll, Leavitt would have had a serious Democratic contender waiting if he'd been able to win the Republican Party nomination.

Instead, Leavitt flies off to Washington to face Democratic senators, rather than Utah political challengers, in confirmation hearings.

E-MAIL: amyjoi@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com