The blue haze of barbecue smoke hung over Sandy's Bicentennial Park Saturday afternoon — a fitting signal for the hundreds of Utah Democrats gathered there. Thousands of similar events were held simultaneously across the country as part of Barack Obama's "Unite for Change" campaign.

Hosted by the Young Democrats of Utah and Utah for Obama, the event drew Obama supporters as well as a slew of Utah Democratic candidates and office holders who gathered to celebrate their candidate, enjoy hotdogs and burgers off the grill and talk local and national politics. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon noted the anomaly of the "blue" party supporters in the Salt Lake suburb.

"I don't think I've ever seen so many Democrats in Sandy at one time ... ever," Corroon said to a cheering audience.

Matt Lyon, the 24-year-old president of the Young Democrats of Utah, said his group has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of young Utahns wanting to get involved.

"We're seeing skyrocketing membership," Lyon said. "Our Web site hits are going through the roof ... we signed up over 200 people at the Pride Festival alone."

Lyon noted that all political groups see significant increases during presidential election years, but he thinks Obama's platform holds a particular interest for young voters.

"Obama is running a very youth-involved campaign," Lyon said. "That's rare for presidential candidates."

Lyon also noted that Obama's campaign strategy is changing the face of politics across the country and in the state of Utah.

"It's a whole new ballgame," Lyon said. "Utah politics is being switched. It's not going to be the large media, big ad campaign ... it's going to be the grass-roots, peer-to-peer movement."

Utah Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Springmeyer was on hand Saturday and said the excitement level reminds him of a past Democratic presidential candidate.

"I haven't seen this much energy in a group of young people since Jack Kennedy," Springmeyer said. "I think it bodes extremely well for the Democratic Party in Utah and nationwide."

Springmeyer believes the new level of involvement and interest among Democrats, spurred in large part by Obama fervor, bodes well for his fight against popular Republican incumbent Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

"It's going to have a major impact, not just on national races, but locally and in my gubernatorial race," Springmeyer said. "I think what we're seeing is people don't want caretaker governors — or congressman— they want change, somebody who's going to step up."

Springmeyer said he believes his race hinges on the 20 percent or so of voters without party affiliation — and he thinks those are votes he can get.

"This is a winnable deal," Springmeyer said.

Winnable is exactly how Nikki Norton, organizer for the Utah for Obama campaign, sees the upcoming presidential election, even though her efforts are focused within a state that has an overwhelming Republican majority.

"We've just had a great response across the state for Obama," Norton said. "It's a coordinated, grass-roots effort that is being led by individuals — and it's getting national attention."

Norton said it's the message behind the method that most resonates with new campaign volunteers and supporters.

"He's told us it's OK to hope — even if it's improbable," Norton said. "He's reached people on a level that speaks to their core values."

The Utah Democrat has garnered new, national media attention. Crystal Young-Otterstrom, communications director for the Young Democrats of Utah, said a CNN camera crew has been following her groups activities, including Saturday's event, as part of a documentary about juxtaposed politics. The other part of the piece is being shot in San Francisco, where CNN is following Republicans in the famously liberal city.

Cache Valley Democrat and 1st District Congressional candidate Morgan Bowen, manning a booth and speaking to the crowd Saturday, doesn't see the Utah Democrat as exotic, so much as just plain practical.

"I'm not a super ideological person," Bowen said. "I believe in common sense solutions, and I think what we're seeing from Democrats who are running this year, nationally and in Utah, are candidates with common-sense solutions."

Other Utah cities that held "Unite for Change" events on Saturday were Salt Lake City, Logan, St. George, Centerville and Kaysville.


E-mail: araymond@desnews.com