Love/Owens and a Little Political Debate History

Fourth Congressional District candidates Mia Love and Doug Owens will debate for the first time at the Utah Taxpayers Association conference on May 20.


It will be a mostly-friendly audience for Love, but it will be a good test for both candidates. Attendees will be able to get a feel for whether Owens is a strong, moderate Democratic candidate in the tradition of Jim Matheson, of if he is just another weak Democrat who will lose badly. A lot of people think Owens will be a solid candidate.

Love is heavily favored in the race, but she still faces a lot of questions. She is young, inexperienced, and some observers say she lacks substance. She wasn’t a disaster in debates against Matheson two years ago, but she wasn’t real good, either.

Some observers are wondering why Love is agreeing to debates this early in the campaign season. She’s providing some nice visibility for Owens.

It reminds me of a story I’ve told previously that shows how old I am and how long I’ve been goofing around in politics.

It was 1978, 36 years ago, and I was a young reporter covering politics for the first time. I was assigned to cover the first re-election campaign of Dan Marriott who was being challenged by a smart, articulate U. of U. Law School professor named Ed Firmage, who had a lot of public policy experience and had been a White House Fellow. This was in the days when Democrats were still winning congressional and statewide races in Utah.

Marriott had been elected two years previous, in 1976, on a total fluke. He filed to run against incumbent Democrat Allan T. Howe, who was popular and whose seat was thought to be pretty safe. But during the election year Howe was arrested for soliciting sex in an undercover police sting operation. He refused to resign from the race, so Democrats recruited a write-in candidate. The Democrats were divided and in complete disarray. Marriott was advised to lay low and avoid controversial topics and debates. He easily won, but hardly anyone knew him after his Rose Garden campaign. And in his infrequent public appearances, he hadn’t come across as very bright and certainly not knowledgeable about the issues.

So he was thought to be highly vulnerable in his first re-election campaign, facing the formidable Ed Firmage, who also had close ties to the LDS Church through his grandfather, Hugh B. Brown, who had been an Apostle and member of the First Presidency.  

Marriott’s campaign manager for his re-election was a young political operative named Mike Leavitt. Two years previously, Leavitt had managed his father’s unsuccessful campaign for governor.

Early in the campaign, Firmage challenged Marriott to a series of debates. Political observers thought the formidable law professor would easily out-debate the young congressman who was an untested campaigner. To the surprise of most people, Marriott accepted every invitation and even suggested more debates. 

I remember covering one of their first debates for the Deseret News and I quickly saw what campaign manager Mike Leavitt obviously had realized. Marriott was a lot smarter than people thought. He was on top of the issues and he more than held his own against Firmage.

As I recall, they debated some 20 times that campaign and Marriott emerged as a solid and competent candidate and congressman. Firmage never had a chance. Those debates defined Marriott, who served four terms before running for governor and losing the GOP nomination to Norm Bangerter.

Marriott is also responsible for one of my favorite Utah political quotes: When asked about his position on a difficult issue (I can’t remember the issue), Marriott responded: “I’m sitting on the fence with both ears on the ground.” Someone should illustrate that.

So will Mia Love and Doug Owens debate 17 times? Will either of them demonstrate a strong grasp of the issues, connect with various audiences, and emerge as the strongest candidate in the race? Debating this early is a good sign they’re willing to engage. It will be fun to watch.