The debate was the first between two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in 20 years because in recent years the party usually has been able to recruit only one candidate. This year, three are running: Ashdown, Howell and Bill Peterson, who said he was told he was not invited by the Democratic Women of Utah because he had not participated in county conventions.
Howell said the field attracted more Democrats this year because "this is a race where we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take back the Senate seat," because of perceived weaknesses by Hatch.
Both Democrats debating have run against Hatch previously. Ashdown, founder of Internet provider Xmission, was the Democratic nominee against Hatch in 2006. Howell, former minority leader in the state Senate, was the nominee in 2000.
Howell said he could beat Hatch this time by showing he can work with Republicans, earn their trust and convince them to have better balance with a Republican and a Democratic senator. Ashdown said he can win by being bold and different, "instead of being Republican light."
Howell said he was elected to the state Senate by beating a four-term GOP incumbent in a Republican area. He said he was then gerrymandered into an even more Republican district and faced a local church leader but won again. "People in Utah will vote for an individual they trust," he said. He added he has won three state Senate races, while Ashdown has never held office.
Ashdown said Utahns admire how he has run Xmission, which would help him even if they turn out in big numbers for Mitt Romney. "It's not me running against Mitt Romney … It's me running on my own."
Ashdown pledged to draw more contrast between himself and Hatch by refusing any money from political action committees contending that Hatch is too beholden to monied interests. "Senator Hatch has raised almost $8 million in his race, and less than 1 percent has come from small individual donation. I'm asking for 100 percent of that in my race" to come from individuals.
Howell said that would be tilting at windmills. While he said no PACs have offered him money yet, "In order to be competitive, we have to have money to do it. ... We need to do it and play this game in order so we have a new U.S. senator."
Many attending Wednesday were delegates to the state Democratic Convention next week. If Howell, Ashdown or Peterson achieve 60 percent of delegate votes, they become the party nominee; otherwise, the top two face off in a primary election on June 26.