WASHINGTON — Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, on Friday endorsed the party's apparent presidential nominee, John Kerry — after a national newspaper speculated that he might not because it could hurt in conservative Utah.

"While I may not agree with Kerry on every issue, he is aware of and supports my interest in protecting Utahns from any future nuclear testing," Matheson told the Deseret Morning News.

Matheson earlier was among the first to endorse retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who is more moderate than Kerry, in his campaign for president. "When he dropped out, I just said I would sit back and let the primary process decide this. . . . But I will vote for the nominee of the party, and I will vote for John Kerry," he said Friday.

Earlier this week, The Hill (a newspaper that covers Congress) said several vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts — including Matheson — appeared to be fleeing from Kerry. It reported they had said through spokesmen they had no plans to endorse him, despite some extra help they themselves are receiving from the party.

It noted many of them are "frontliners," to whom Democratic leaders have asked other House members to give money from their own campaigns and political action committees to help win a Democratic majority.

According to latest, year-end reports, Matheson had received more than $40,000 from 39 fellow House Democrats — or about one of every five of them in Congress. Many of them would become committee chairmen if Democrats regain control. Matheson's race is seen as one of only a few dozen competitive races in the nation.

Matheson said Friday that he always planned to vote for whoever became the party nominee but had not actively endorsed anyone since Clark left the campaign.

Matheson declined to speculate on whether Kerry as the nominee will help or hurt Democrats in Utah other than to say, "Every presidential year, there is a greater voter turnout. . . . It means more people pay attention to politics, which is good for me.

"When they haven't paid attention, they tend to rely more on party labels in the voting booth. But when they know more about candidates, they are more likely to look at them as individuals — which is what I want," he said.

Of course, Republicans outnumber Democrats in his district, but Matheson has still managed to win two close elections.

Matheson said another thing that should increase turnout and create extra interest for Democrats this year is that his brother, Scott Matheson Jr., will also be on the ballot — as the Democratic nominee for governor.

"I think that's going to generate a lot of interest, and interest is good," Jim Matheson said. Of course, both Mathesons are sons of the late two-term Gov. Scott Matheson Sr.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com