But we have to go back two years earlier to set the stage for this fascinating campaign. In 1976, Marriott, a young insurance salesman, won the Republican nomination against the Democratic incumbent, Allan T. Howe. This was in the days when Democrats were still quite strong in Utah. At the outset of the election, the pundits didn’t think Marriott or any of the other Republican challengers had a chance against Howe, a smart, well-connected congressman.
However, part way into the campaign, Howe was arrested for soliciting sex in a decoy sting operation. He refused to resign and the Democrats tried to run a write-in candidate. With all the Democratic troubles, Marriott ran a very low-key campaign, trying to avoid controversy. He just had to be on the ballot and avoid a major mistake to win, and that’s what he did.
So fast-forward two years to 1978, when Marriott, who was still mostly unknown and untested, faced the formidable Firmage. Most observers thought Firmage would handily beat Marriott, especially because Marriott didn’t come across as being very sophisticated and he had a penchant for saying some dumb things. After all, he won his first race on a fluke.
To draw a bright contrast and demonstrate his intellect and grasp of the issues, Firmage challenged Marriott to numerous debates. It was assumed that Marriott would avoid Firmage and run a low-key campaign like he did in the previous cycle. But to everyone’s surprise, Marriott accepted every debate.
So Firmage and Marriott debated over and over again, all over the state, including numerous media debates. I can’t remember the exact number, but it was something like 20 to 30 debates.
And, guess what . . . Marriott turned out to be a fine debater, much better than anyone expected. He had learned a thing or two in his first term in Congress and was well-versed on the issues. He connected pretty well with average citizens and all the exposure gave him some momentum and high visibility. When it became obvious this would be a difficult race for Firmage, he had difficulty raising money and Marriott went on to win rather handily.
One interesting side note: Marriott’s campaign manager that year was a smart young (27 years old) strategist named Mike Leavitt. It was Leavitt’s second campaign, having lost in 1976 when his father, Dixie, ran for governor. Leavitt later said that it became clear that Marriott was smarter and a better debater than anyone gave him credit for. The best way for him to become better known and win the race was to directly confront Firmage at every opportunity.
That year, having the incumbent debate the challenger was a smart political move.