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Are you better off than you were four years ago?

It has become a theme in the presidential race, but Democratic gubernatorial challenger Peter Cooke said Thursday, as far as Utah is concerned, the state is worse off under Gov. Gary Herbert.

"I'm on the campaign trail every day. I'm listening to Utah cities and towns and what they're saying, and what people are telling me is they're not better off. Utah families are hurting," Cooke said. "It's time we have a leader who does not hide from the problems, who is not only concerned about getting re-elected. … It's time for a change."

Cooke said that Utah has lost 93,000 jobs since 2008 — jobs that in many cases won't be coming back — and that Utah households have seen their incomes fall behind where they were 15 years ago.

For Cooke, it was a direct attack on the strength of the state's economy, which has been a key component of Herbert's re-election pitch and is the top issue on voters' minds.

But Herbert said there is "no question about it" that Utahns are better off than they were when Herbert took office in August 2009 — succeeding Gov. Jon Huntsman when he became U.S. ambassador to China.

"I find it a little bit ironic that my opponent would act like Utah's economic success is some kind of smoke and mirrors. It's not me saying it," said Herbert. "People outside of the race for governor look at Utah and say, 'They're having economic success.' We're not just named the best place for business because we're a nice place to live. It's because we have an environment that is conducive to business, and we're growing again."

Herbert said that Cooke either misunderstands the statistics or is distorting the facts.

Herbert pointed to an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent when he took office and now has fallen to 6 percent.

At the same time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been a net increase of just 3,153 jobs from the time Herbert took office through July of this year. However, from July 2010 to July 2011, the state saw 27,265 jobs created.

Cooke also criticized Herbert's priorities, giving $646 million in tax breaks to induce huge out-of-state corporations to move to Utah, which he said muscles out locally owned small businesses.

A retired two-star general, Cooke said Utah leaders were outworked and outsmarted by Oklahoma officials, who positioned Tinker Air Force Base to add jobs and responsibilities at the expense of Hill Air Force Base, jeopardizing the base's survival.

At the same time, he said the state has run up its debt, approaching its debt limit, and has shortchanged education.

Herbert said that polls show that three-fourths of Utahns believe the state is on the right path and it has climbed to near-pre-recession levels in most categories.

"Clearly Utah is better off now than it was four years ago when we were in the throes of the recession," he said. "We've come out of the hole now. We're nearly at the top. … In every measurable way, you're seeing success."

Cooke said, if he is elected, he would create regional economic development teams with local government and business leaders, integrated at the state level. He said he would focus on helping small businesses get capital and making sure businesses have the graduates they are looking to hire.

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