Cooke said that the state has lost tens of thousands of jobs and 5.7 percent of the Utah workforce has quit looking for work. Job growth in the state has slipped from second best in the nation to 10th, and the long-term prospects are hampered by Utah's last-in-the-nation education funding.
"I think it's horrible for you to sit here [and claim] that we're on the way to economic recovery," Cooke said. "You're selling our state [so companies] can have cheap labor. We have no education to back our state up."
And, Cooke, a retired two-star general with the Army Reserve, said the governor was "asleep" when action should have been taken to shore up Hill Air Force Base to survive future base closures and instead the base lost jobs and responsibilities to a base in Oklahoma.
Herbert said Utah is adding jobs at twice the national average and companies want to move to Utah. "We've put ourselves on the road to prosperity. We've got a ways to go, but we're on the right road," he said. "We are the brightest star on the flag."
Technically, both candidates are correct on Utah's jobs situation.
From the state's peak employment in February 2008 to the July figures the most recent available the state lost nearly 70,000 jobs, and Utah's average wages have fallen by 2.4 percent.
Since Herbert took office in August 2009, there has been a net increase of about 3,100 jobs, and wages have increased by 4.7 percent. Over the past year the state added about 25,000 jobs.
After the debate, Herbert took a shot at Cooke's gloomy outlook.
"I'm a strong advocate for Utah," he said. "If you don't believe in the state, you ought not run for governor."
But Cooke said Utahns need to hear the truth about the state of the economy and a governor who will level with them.
"The only win would be for the people of the state of Utah to recognize we need leadership to take us through" the economic doldrums, he said. When candidates say everything is fine, Cooke said, "you're just trying to win elections."
Herbert defended his record on education, saying that his administration has invested $200 million in schools. But Cooke said more needs to be done to strengthen Utah schools.
"You've had a long time to solve the problem of education. It's time for somebody to take over and run it right and make it happen," he said.
Cooke said the state needs to be firm in opposing the Snake Valley pipeline, a plan to pipe water from the Utah-Nevada border to Las Vegas. Herbert said he has "drawn a line in the sand that says we will protect every molecule" of water, and he blamed Nevada Sen. Harry Reid for the water grab.
Herbert twice drew applause from the crowd, largely made up of elected mayors and city council members, for strong statements on local government control, once criticizing the federal government for not doing a better job managing forests.
"We can do a better job of it. You can do a better job of it. You know your backyards better than anyone in Washington, D.C.," Herbert said.
Cooke said he supports the idea of Utah receiving federal land and adding to the state's tax base but criticized the governor for supporting legislation demanding Congress relinquish 30 million acres of federal land in Utah, saying it would result in a doomed court fight and there is no plan to manage the land when the state struggles to maintain its state parks.
Herbert said there is no intention to file a "willy-nilly lawsuit," and the bill is designed to press the federal government into discussions.
At the end of the debate, Cooke raised his voice and jabbed at the podium, rejecting Herbert's suggestion that Cooke would grow the size of government.
"I'm a small businessperson. I've fought for this country," Cooke insisted. "I'm not in any way trying to bring more government in. Please don't use the same labels and try to split [people]."
Moroni Mayor Todd Pay said the land management issue is important to his community, which saw fires in the nearby La Sal Mountains this summer and still has stands of dead trees, killed by bark beetles.
"The one area that is critical is our lands and the federal government, and needing to gain control of that for our state," said Pay. He is supporting Herbert but felt like both candidates understand the need for more local control.
Joe Johnson, the mayor of Bountiful, said he thought both candidates did a good job, but "I think the governor was a little bit more in tune with what the issues were with the cities."
The two candidates will meet for two more debates before the November election. Their next debate will be Oct. 4 at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.