WEST JORDAN — Four years ago, during an I-15 drive to Fillmore for a campaign stop, future Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. learned his campaign manager had resigned for health reasons.
Huntsman closed his cell phone, turned to former Brigham Young University placekicker Jason Chaffetz and said, "Congratulations, you're my new campaign manager."
Chaffetz asked Huntsman for a timeout. He had no experience. But he soon agreed to lead the ultimately successful campaign and later spent two years as Huntsman's first chief of staff.
Chaffetz took far more time this year to consider doing something else he's never done — run for office himself.
Nine months after forming an exploratory committee, Chaffetz launched Monday a frontal assault on 3rd District Congressman Chris Cannon in a bid to unseat the six-term fellow Republican.
Chaffetz clearly will attack from the right. He spent Monday criticizing Cannon for being in Congress while the federal budget nearly doubled from $1.5 trillion to $2.9 trillion, for lacking toughness on immigration and for voting for the No Child Left Behind law.
"What I saw back in 2006," when the Democrats took back control of Congress, "was the American people saying, 'You failed,'" Chaffetz said. "Republicans controlled the presidency, the House and the Senate, and we failed to address education, fiscal discipline, and we were mired in scandal. And guess what? It wasn't everybody else's congressman but ours. That's not an excuse. If you can't get done in 10 years, when your party's in control, what you wanted to do, then it's time to go."
Chaffetz said he will run a clean campaign but won't mince words about Cannon's record, which he studied as Huntsman's chief of staff.
"As I looked at the federal delegation," Chaffetz said, "I recognized how poorly the Cannon office was operating, how poorly they were representing their constituents. I've seen it up close and personal. ... I was the one who got to go with Gov. Huntsman and sit down with (U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret) Spellings and tell her why No Child Left Behind was wrong for Utah, because Chris Cannon wasn't. He was supporting it."
Cannon will have to fend off Chaffetz and at least one other challenger, former Juab County prosecutor David Leavitt. The three will face off May 10 at the state Republican Party Convention at Utah Valley State College, though others could still join the race.
Leavitt, who filed to run last spring, announced Monday that his campaign has raised more than $100,000 since starting its fund-raising efforts in August. Chaffetz said he has raised "tens of thousands of dollars."
Chaffetz hopes to win the Republican nomination at the convention by earning 60 percent of the votes from among the 1,200 delegates.
Cannon's chief of staff, Joe Hunter, said the congressman expected another challenge from inside the party, which has become a regular occurrence despite the high ratings Cannon has earned from several conservative groups.
"I think it's way too early to characterize it as the stiffest (challenge) or the easiest, or whatever," Hunter said. "The 3rd District generally produces energetic, intraparty challenges, and there's no reason to think this will be any different. We've had challenges from millionaires and former office-holders, and Congressman Cannon is still in office."
Republican convention delegates are a favorite target of Cannon's challengers from the right because delegates tend to be more conservative than those who vote in the Republican primary.
John Jacob actually edged Cannon in the delegate vote at the 2006 convention, 52 percent to 48 percent but was pushed into a primary with the incumbent because Jacob didn't reach 60 percent. In the primary, Cannon won easily among the more moderate Republican electorate, 56 percent to 44 percent.
Chaffetz said Monday that since his announcement in January that he was exploring the possibility of a run, he has called 1,000 of the 1,200 delegates.
"I'm working with the delegates one at a time," he said. "It's all about relationships and dealing with voters one at a time."
While Chaffetz said Cannon is "fundamentally and principally wrong on immigration, top to bottom," and promised a policy speech with a seven-point plan on the issue before the convention, he said past campaigns against Cannon have struggled to avoid single-topic challenges and promised to better negotiate that mire.
Hunter said Cannon talks with delegates almost daily, calling attacks on Cannon from the right of the party on immigration "an old story."
Chaffetz also attacked Cannon for being the only member of the Utah delegation to support a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and a June 15 vote for a $34 billion Homeland Security appropriation that was opposed by 148 House Republicans who sided with President Bush. Bush had asked for $2 billion less.
Chaffetz also said he is a better communicator than Cannon.