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Rhetoric growing sharper in gubernatorial campaign

With just two weeks left until Election Day, Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. and Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. stepped up their criticism of each other Tuesday during a debate before the Salt Lake Rotary Club.

Throughout the campaign, Huntsman has said economic development has to be the state's top priority, while Matheson puts education at the top of his list. Their positions are the same, but their rhetoric is growing sharper.

Huntsman said Tuesday that if education "is going to be priority No. 1, then you darn well better figure out how you're going to rejuvenate the economic base such that we can afford world class education."

The businessman and former ambassador promised he'd label the door of the governor's office, "Economic Development Czar" if he's elected.

"We're running pretty close to empty in terms of our ability to pay the bills," Huntsman said. "Therefore, the next governor is going to have to work overtime in ensuring that economic development isn't left to the bureaucracy, that it's done by the governor."

Matheson countered by raising concerns about the potential cost to public education of supporting tuition tax credits and rejecting the federal "No Child Left Behind" program, which he said brings $115 million to the state.

The University of Utah law school dean said Huntsman would have signed a bill introduced last session that would have given parents who send their children to private schools a tax credit. The controversial bill was later pulled by its sponsor.

Matheson said backing such a program was "the wrong direction to go" with public education on the ropes.

"We need a governor who knows the difference between managing the government and leading the state, and that difference is purpose," he said.

Huntsman insisted on responding.

"I guess it's easy to make anyone look scary on education policy. I'm not going to do anything that's going to hurt public education," he said, but added that he would look at new approaches.

Asked if he supported tuition tax credits, he said he would back a "tailored, means-tested tuition tax credit that would first of all focus on those kids who are falling through the cracks," similar to a voucher bill vetoed by Gov. Olene Walker aimed at funding programs for disabled children.

Pressed by Matheson, Huntsman acknowledged he did support the tuition tax credit bill proposed last session, too.

"My biggest concern is that we do nothing, and we find that the innovation, the experiments and the excellence in education is being done somewhere else," he said.

Matheson said other states that have adopted tuition tax credits have lost money for public education, and studies have shown the same would be the case in Utah. He also asked Huntsman to answer his question about the federal "No Child Left Behind" program.

Huntsman said issues over such programs come down to negotiations between federal and state officials. He said he will "do everything he can to preserve that money," but it could end up costing the state more to stay in the program.

The candidates, who were praised at the beginning of the half-hour debate for running a "clean and topic-centered campaign," did agree on some other issues, including Initiative 1, which would fund the purchase of open space through a bond backed by a sales tax increase. Both men support it.