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Governor hopefuls make cases

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Democratic candidate Scott Matheson Jr. and Republican hopeful Jon Huntsman Jr. shake hands after their debate.

Democratic candidate Scott Matheson Jr. and Republican hopeful Jon Huntsman Jr. shake hands after their debate.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

Salt Lake Community College student Ryan Nigbur said he still wasn't sure which candidate for Utah governor he supported after Monday night's debate between Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. and Republican Jon Huntsman Jr.

Nigbur, who was one of the questioners in the town hall-style debate sponsored by KSL-TV, KSL Newsradio 1160 and the Deseret Morning News, wanted to know what the candidates would do to make him want to stay in Utah after he earns his teaching degree.

"The state needs you so much," said Matheson, who has made education the top priority of his campaign. Utah needs to do a better job of competing with other states for teachers, he said, including paying higher starting salaries.

Huntsman, though, gave Nigbur the answer he said he liked best. The candidate, who has placed economic development at the top of his priority list, said Utah should look at offering so-called signing bonuses to new teachers, as Nevada is doing.

"That's something I've looked into," Nigbur said after the hourlong debate. "Even though it's a small thing in a long career, it's helpful for a young family."

Still, he said, even that wasn't enough to shift him from the undecided category.

Angie Bleggi, a caseworker with the state Division of Child and Family Services, was a Matheson supporter when she walked into the debate at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. She said nothing she heard, including the answers to her question about raising state employees' pay, changed her mind.

Bleggi said she was concerned about Huntsman's suggestion that he might put a "flexible freeze" on state jobs if he's elected.

"We've been there, done that, and it puts a big stress" on "overworked and underpaid" employees, she said.

Huntsman said the freeze would help determine which positions were essential. Once the cap was in place, he said, he would be able to "take better care of those in state government."

Matheson, dean of the University of Utah law school, said he had experience with the "very meager raises" given by the state. Even in strong economic times, Matheson said, the state has not been "willing to step up to the plate" when it comes to boosting employee earnings.

Other questions fielded by the candidates included whether they would be willing to raise taxes if economic development efforts don't produce enough money to boost the state's per-pupil spending on education.

Neither backed a tax increase, although Matheson said that "at some point down the road, we may have to make some hard decisions." Matheson also said the state can't continue to let spending lag "if we truly value education as a top priority."

Huntsman said economic development is "the heart and soul of everything we do," including coming up with the money to pay for education. Huntsman said if his economic development efforts fail, "then I fail, too."

There wasn't time to ask all of the questions chosen from hundreds submitted by the public. However, moderator Bruce Lindsay did squeeze in what he called a "lightning round," asking the candidates which living politician they admired who was not from their party.

That question momentarily stumped Huntsman, who came up with Norma Matheson, Utah's former first lady and his opponent's mother. Matheson offered Massachusetts' GOP Gov. Mitt Romney, who campaigned on a platform of bringing balance to that Democratic state.

Afterward, both candidates said they were pleased with their performance. Matheson said the questions asked were "excellent." But he said he wished he'd had more time to elaborate on his answers.

Huntsman, who leads the race in recent polls, said at this point in the campaign, "My only objective is to hold our ground. I think we succeeded."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com