With a new poll out showing that the Salt Lake City mayor's race is closing between two candidates — Salt Lake City Councilman Dave Buhler and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson — the pair, who consider themselves friends, are once again playing out an odd-couple political relationship that has connected their two families for a quarter century.

It starts back in 1982, when a fresh-faced young kid, working as an aide for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, took some time off to help run the senator's first re-election campaign.

Hatch's challenger was the then-popular Democratic Salt Lake City mayor, Ted Wilson, Jenny Wilson's father.

Ultimately, Buhler ended up as deputy campaign manager — the manager being another young politico named Mike Leavitt, who would later become a three-term governor and now is U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services.

Buhler helped Leavitt — who had drawn up a detailed campaign plan that took up a large three-ring binder — paint Hatch as the conservative GOP bulwark and color Wilson as a liberal Democrat out of step with most Utah voters.

Jenny Wilson worked on her father's U.S. Senate campaign, only to see him fall short of Hatch.

Flash forward to 1988.

Then-GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter had pushed through the largest tax hike in Utah's history in 1987 to help improve public and higher education. But a taxpayer protest jumped up. Bangerter soon found himself fighting for his political life.

Buhler was then working in Bangerter's gubernatorial office. He once again took a leave, this time to manage Bangerter's campaign.

Jenny Wilson, meanwhile, became her father's official campaign spokeswoman — her first real exposure to Utahns and the local media.

Ted Wilson, then head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, started out the governor's race about 12 months from Election Day more than 30 percentage points ahead of Bangerter.

Bangerter's campaign faced a number of tough spots: For a short time, Bangerter was challenged within the Republican Party by Jon Huntsman Sr., whose son, Jon Huntsman Jr., would later be elected governor.

The elder Huntsman was a billionaire and could pour his own money into the race if he saw fit. Speaking candidly at the time, Buhler said — with his typical dry wit — "We were doing OK in fund raising, but it dried up instantly once Huntsman got in the race."

But John Huntsman Sr. dropped out after a month when perennial candidate Merrill Cook dropped out of the Republican Party and decided to run as an independent, throwing a wrench into the political mix.

With Buhler's steady campaign management, Bangerter, working hard, started gaining on Ted Wilson — percentage point by percentage point.

Ted Wilson could feel the campaign slipping away — and the GOP surge was just too much. On Election Day, Bangerter beat the former mayor by 2 percentage points, with Cook finishing third.

"Both those races — my dad's U.S. Senate race and the 1988 governor's race — were really tough losses for us," remembers Jenny Wilson. "They were one of the main reasons that before I decided to run (both for mayor and for her countywide council seat), I took some surveys and studied on whether I had a real chance to win."

In other words, Jenny Wilson was not going to get into a race where she was a decided underdog and probable loser.

Buhler, meanwhile, learned that in a statewide race, if you keep pounding home that your candidate is the true Republican in the race, the odds are with you.

Ironically, Buhler now finds himself in his second Salt Lake City mayor's race, where if you prove you are the true Democrat in the race, the odds are with you.

Starting in 1990, Ted Wilson, an adjunct professor of politics at the University of Utah through his directorship of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, decided to teach a class on practical campaign politics, taught by one Democrat (himself) and one Republican.

In considering which Republican to ask, Wilson fell on a "nice guy" who had helped defeat him in two statewide races — Buhler.

"I knew Dave fairly well," Ted Wilson remembers now. And he had a few hard feelings against the guy who had drubbed him so well in the 1988 governor's race. "I was put out a bit with him, that's true. Hey, he'd helped kick my butt."

Still, Buhler agreed to help teach the class, and over the next decade, "we became good friends, quite good friends," recalls Ted Wilson. "I like him very much."

The family and political connections have stayed on — with Jenny Wilson and Buhler becoming friends as well.

"He's an open guy," Wilson says of Buhler. Several Sundays ago, Jenny Wilson was checking her e-mail, and she saw a note from Buhler. He had misplaced the questionnaire some special-interest group had sent to the leading mayoral candidates, and he asked if she had hers and could send it along to him. She obliged.

This is the first time that Buhler has actually run against a Wilson. In the past, he had only managed campaigns against the family.

"And no matter what anyone tells you, it is a lot tougher to be a candidate than to be the guy running the candidate's campaign," Buhler says.

It is disheartening to lose a race — although as a campaign manager, Buhler never did. But he knows firsthand how tough it is to lose as a candidate. Buhler got into the 1991 Salt Lake mayoral final with then political novice Deedee Corradini — a Democrat.

Buhler lost. And Ted Wilson was Corradini's campaign co-chairman — "a turn of the tables," as Ted Wilson puts it.

Buhler then ran for the Utah Senate from his city east-side district. He won, only to be defeated in re-election four years later by a Democrat.

"Dave seems to have the Republican vote locked up" in the mayor's race, said Ted Wilson, referring to a new poll that was conducted for The Salt Lake Tribune. "He may well get into the final election," Ted Wilson notes of the current race. The father hopes that his daughter will be in that final with Buhler.

"And then Dave will be swimming upstream against the (partisan) political waters — as I was in 1988. By two-to-one, the city is Democrat, just like the state was Republican" back in 1988.

So Buhler is back in a close political race. And he's facing another Wilson.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com