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Fall brings host of political questions, ruminations

Pignanelli and Webb: Fall brings us a change of season, an extra hour of sleep and anticipation of the holidays. Autumn also brings us closer to a new political year and legislative session, which increases the intensity of the rumors, questions and conjectures regarding politics in Utah. Here is some of what's wagging on the tongues of politicos:

Can state Rep. Steve Urquhart continue a credible challenge to Sen. Orrin Hatch? For several months, disaffected conservatives and high-tech millionaires have encouraged the St. George legislator. Unfortunately for Urquhart, the grumbling about Hatch has not translated into financial contributions. During the summer, Hatch raised almost $436,000 (with $2 million now in the bank) while Urquhart garnered $8,000. Although Urquhart's strategy remains a low-cost targeting of GOP delegates for a convention win, he will need to raise much more by year-end just to maintain an effective organization and demonstrate broad-based support. The test for Urquhart's viability has always been whether he could secure respectable financing and the public endorsement of significant Republican leaders. There are whispers among politicos initially intrigued by his candidacy that he's not meeting the test. In order to deflect concerns about fund raising, Urquhart recently announced an initiative to recruit 3,000 volunteers in the next 30 days. By doing so, he established Dec. 1 as the date when his campaign will be acknowledged as a phenomenal upstart or a political mistake.

Was Hatch able to shore up support during his summer campaign efforts? Hatch attracted an intraparty challenge because of perceived vulnerability. Some felt he had become a creature of Washington and was out-of-touch with Utah. Local leaders hardly ever heard from him, and Sen. Bob Bennett was considered the go-to guy to get things done for Utah. Also, some Republican activists joked that Hatch was such an intense candidate he would wear out at least three walkers during the campaign. Over the summer, Hatch worked extremely hard to overcome these perceptions. He traveled all over the state, meeting with hundreds of people. Political observers are giving Utah's senior senator mixed reviews on his performances in various locales. He received criticism for a lackluster speech at the state convention. However, a number of business groups and trade associations have reversed their early misgivings and are now committed to Hatch's re-election — a direct result of personal conversations with him. He may have stumbled at first, but the famous Hatch charm offensive has blunted many of Urquhart's blows and seems unstoppable.

Is Democratic challenger Pete Ashdown's high-tech strategy to overcome the odds against him a pipe dream or a shrewd maneuver? Ashdown, founder of local Internet provider XMission, knows Utah is one of the most wired states in the country. Ashdown is also aware a Democratic challenger cannot defeat Hatch at the game in which he excels — fund raising and institutional support. Instead, Ashdown has launched a remarkable campaign with the potential to attract computer-savvy Utahns. Internet surfers can play an active role in his campaign by developing policy, organizing events and contacting potential supporters — all from the comfort of their home. His approach has garnered attention from national technology experts. However, getting people involved in politics who haven't voted much in the past is a lot harder than it looks, especially in big numbers. The old game book never worked, and many believe his objective is a long shot, so Ashdown has nothing to lose with this unorthodox strategy.

Will the Legacy Parkway settlement receive legislative approval this week? No one can overstate the amount of frustration and disgust that legislators — Democratic and Republican — have toward proposed resolution of the Legacy lawsuits. Republicans hate giving a win to the environmentalists, and many Democrats are angry that they have been left out at the beginning and end of this sorry adventure. A number of lawmakers are threatening to withhold support as a demonstration of their emotion. However, a high majority of Utahns (and more than 50 percent of Salt Lake residents) want the road, and the politicians know this. We predict the bill passes in the special session by almost two-thirds in each house.

Will Congressman Chris Cannon run for re-election? Cannon has never been a strong campaigner (he would rather drink boiling lava than fund-raise). This political — but not character — flaw is often misperceived as apathy toward re-election. Thus, there are rumors that Cannon will not run in 2006, especially because he may face two challengers from within his party. But Cannon will be a candidate next year, especially because it affords him the opportunity, if he wins, to tweak all his detractors.

When will state Rep. LaVar Christensen get around to filing for the 2nd Congressional District Republican nomination, and what about radio personality Doug Wright? We keep hearing that Christensen will announce his candidacy very soon. Wright appears to be still undecided. A GOP vacancy for this position less than five months before filing deadline indicates Rep. Jim Matheson's strength.

Could Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan be defeated in his re-election bid? In the October primary, political neophyte Gary Forbush captured 40 percent of the vote (Dolan received 54 percent). This is an amazing result, because Forbush spent less than $800 and expended little effort prior to the primary election. Dolan will likely outspend his opponent 8-1 in the general election, and many believe his political machine is invincible. Forbush has obviously tapped into a strong anti-incumbent undercurrent. Riding this momentum, he is expanding his grass-roots activity. According to some politicos, a Dolan victory is no longer a certain outcome, and election night could be a real nail-biter.


Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake mayor, Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. Pignanelli's spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is executive director of the state Department of Administrative Services in the Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. administration. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.