Like the first snowfall signaling the start of ski season, Scott Matheson Jr. kicked off the unofficial start of the fall political campaign season Wednesday with the first TV ad.

The Democratic Party's nominee for governor will soon be followed by Republican challenger Jon Huntsman Jr., whose own TV ads start Monday.

Both men picked public education for their opening salvos.

The nonprofit Utah Foundation, a local think tank, says Utahns' No. 1 political issue this year is public schools — and Matheson's ad boldly proclaims him: "Utah's Education Governor."

Well, actually he has to win the office first.

"Taking care of schoolchildren is the centerpiece" of the Matheson campaign, his campaign manager Mike Zuhl says.

Matheson is running 60-second and 30-second spots — the latter a shorter version of the longer. The buy is fairly wide. "It will reach the vast majority of Utah TV viewers" over the next two weeks, Zuhl says. Wednesday night Matheson ads ran during prime-time newscasts on KSL-TV Channel 5 and KSTU Channel 13.

In a full close-up of the candidate, Matheson says all Utah schoolchildren deserve a chance to succeed.

Jason Chaffetz, Huntsman's campaign manager, said he will start running two different 30-second TV ads this week — both dealing with Huntsman's plan to help public schools.

And Huntsman grabs two side issues along the way.

Even though Gov. Olene Walker, who was defeated by Huntsman in the May 8 state GOP convention and knocked from office, won't officially endorse Huntsman by name (she supports all Republican candidates, she says), Huntsman refers to Walker by name in one of his new ads.

"We asked (Walker) if we could refer to her kindergarten-through-third grade reading program (called the Olene Walker early reading initiative)," Chaffetz said. And Walker did not oppose that, he added.

In addition, one of Huntsman's ads says GOP President Bush's No Child Left Behind federal education program should be removed from Utah schools.

A Utah GOP legislator introduced a bill in the 2004 Legislature that would have junked Bush's pet education program here. The White House three times sent out administration education officials to effectively gut the bill — which was done — but NCLB remains a sore spot among many Utahns, especially conservative Republicans who don't like federal rules for local education.

So, in his first round of general election TV advertising, Huntsman distances himself from an unpopular federal GOP program while tying himself to a popular Republican governor.

"Huntsman is shoring up his conservative base" by opposing NCLB "while reaching out to Olene Walker supporters," who likely are moderate Republicans, "making them feel more comfortable with him," says Dave Hansen, a longtime Utah GOP operative who ran Fred Lampropoulos' gubernatorial bid this year. Lampropoulos, like Walker, was defeated in the May GOP convention.

"It's natural that both candidates try to capitalize on education, which continually comes in as the most important issue for voters this year" in state races, said Hansen.

But the critically breaking school issue between Matheson and Huntsman is not support for public education. "Who isn't for education?" said Hansen. "It's school choice — how hard will either guy go on that?"

Matheson, formally endorsed by the Utah Education Association, the main public education union, opposes tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools, saying public education can't afford any budget reductions.

Huntsman supports recent pro-education-choice efforts, including a tax credit bill introduced in the 2004 Legislature that failed to make it out of a House committee.

While both Matheson and Huntsman will take their TV ads off the air in about two weeks, Utahns can plan on being bombarded with all kinds of campaign ads before the Nov. 2 election. Besides the governor's race, there is a U.S. Senate and three U.S. House contests.

In the governor's race, Matheson's campaign has passed the $1 million fund-raising level, Zuhl said.

And when new financial reports are filed this week, Chaffetz said, Huntsman will be above the $2 million mark in contributions.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com