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Two years ago, Soren Simonsen was approached by Democratic Party leaders about running for Congress.

He declined.

Then this spring, Utah Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis asked to meet Simonsen at City Creek for lunch and made the plea again: We need you to run against Jason Chaffetz, the popular two-term Republican congressman.

Dabakis laid it out for Simonsen in stark terms — probably unnecessary — given Chaffetz, the Republican incumbent, had raised more than $442,000 for his inaugural campaign in 2008 and raked in more than $647,000 for his re-election bid in 2010. In 2008, he won with 66 percent of the vote and in 2010, picked up 72 percent of the vote.

Chaffetz isn't lacking for exposure, either. He is already a regular on cable news channels and various media outlets. He famously appeared on "The Colbert Report" and is known this year as a key surrogate for Republican Mitt Romney's bid for the White House.

Even the vulnerability Democrats liked to exploit — the fact that Chaffetz didn't reside in the district — was erased when the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature redrew the boundaries this year so he's now a resident of the 3rd Congressional District.

That means Chaffetz, for the first time, will be able to vote for himself. Ironically, Simonsen, who arguably needs every vote he can squeeze out of the massive district, can't vote for himself because he doesn't live in the district.

"It's hard when the perception is that Jason Chaffetz can't be beat," Dabakis said. "There's something noble about taking on a tough, uphill climb. It's a tremendous sacrifice to take this on."

Solving problems • Simonsen is known most recently for helping facilitate a compromise to allow certain Salt Lake City neighborhoods to have pubs that serve alcohol. The volatile debate ended in a deal that allowed pubs in some areas, though smaller than initially requested.

After eight years serving on the officially nonpartisan council, Simonsen said he's used to problem-solving and not having politics dictate policy. It's an approach he said is missing from Congress.

"Right now it's just a lot of back and forth blaming the other party for the problems," Simonsen said. "We have to get beyond that."

The 44-year-old architect and urban planner said Chaffetz "doesn't work well with those he doesn't agree with" and that he is only representing people who supported him.

Chaffetz took umbrage at Simonsen's critique — noting he managed to get an immigration bill passed through the House of Representatives with bipartisan support.

That bill, which would remove the 7 percent cap per country on the 140,000 green cards issued by the United States, cleared with a vote of 389-15. Chaffetz said the bill is languishing in the Senate, but he said it showed his willingness to find common ground on one of the nation's most contentious issues.

"I'm doing my best to fix legal immigration," he said. "Most shy away from it."

But Simonsen said it's the hard-line Chaffetz — the one who didn't want to raise the debt ceiling and who ran as a tea party candidate in 2008 — that he believes is contributing to a broken Congress.

State of the campaign • Chaffetz graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in communications, but he's most famous there for being the place-kicker on the football team. He also brings a colorful, mixed political pedigree — originally a Democrat and working for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and eventually coming back to Utah, where he served as chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman.

Earlier in the year, he was toying with running against Sen. Orrin Hatch — a prospect threatening enough that the Hatch campaign began seriously preparing for a nomination fight with him. Eventually, he backed down at a news conference, where he said a primary battle between the two would've been an intra-party "bloodbath."

Instead, Dan Liljenquist ended up challenging Hatch and losing in the state Republican Convention.

Matthew Burbank, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, said Chaffetz has managed to build on his popularity and brand by presenting himself as hawkish on fiscal discipline while keeping "away from the nutty fringe" of the tea party. Burbank said Simonsen would need to raise lots of money and spend full time in the district campaigning to have a realistic chance.

"Where he's at politically and where the district is at, that's going to be very hard for him to do," Burbank said.

Simonsen, who left his own start-up consulting firm and joined a Salt Lake City-based architectural firm this year, said he's only able to campaign upward of 15 hours a week. He said he's attempting to raise support through grassroots efforts, but he also said canvassing the district is unrealistic.

Simonsen hasn't reached out to Chaffetz for a debate, saying he "doesn't see it as an effective strategy" in reaching voters.

"I have high hopes, but my expectations are very realistic," Simonsen said. "I'm giving the campaign everything I can, but it's not what I can spend the bulk of my time on. I'm trying to be very efficient and focused when I am."

That included a recent trip to Price, where he stood before 50 people in the City Council chambers as part of a meet-the-candidate forum that also featured Peter Cooke, the Democratic challenger for governor and a group of candidates running for local offices.

He unloaded a few lawn signs out of his mini-van, grabbed a few stickers and pamphlets and set them on a table inside the foyer. Simonsen walked around, shaking hands and engaging a few people in deep conversations about alternative energy — a topic of supreme importance in resource-rich Carbon County.

But he said energy policy is not his primary goal if he were to get elected to Congress. The first thing that needs to be tackled, he said, would be a serious move to initiate campaign-finance reform and allow more viewpoints into the system in which a diversity of ideas can bloom into public policy.

He said the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case was a blow to democracy and a way for the two parties to solidify power.

"I think without changing the structure of the system, you can't hope to do a whole lot more," Simonsen said.

He acknowledged he's voted for a lot of third-party candidates and said his views don't fit neatly into either major party — though he leans more toward Democrats.

"I don't believe in a two-party political system," he said. "I don't believe that we can represent all viewpoints with just two choices."

Clear differences • There are virtually no areas where the two candidates agree. Simonsen would like to see a single-payer health care option. Chaffetz would not. Chaffetz doesn't support gay marriage.

Simonsen does. He said he'd like to see a pathway for citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. Chaffetz doesn't support amnesty proposals.

Simonsen also said Iran should be allowed to pursue nuclear weapons.

"Developing nuclear weapons for national security — other countries have just as much of a right to protect their interests as we do," he said.

Chaffetz disagreed.

"Iran, should it achieve nuclear capabilities, is one of the biggest threats to world peace," Chaffetz said.

That echoes the 2012 Republican platform, but Simonsen said elected officials need to get away from party platforms and cultivate ideas independent of partisan leanings.

He said his background in architecture — something one of his role-models, Thomas Jefferson, practiced — is a field more suited to seeking solutions.

"This is not ill-intentioned, but we have a lot of legislators who come from a legal background where they are trained to argue," Simonsen said. "Architects are trained to solve problems and work within environments where you have strong viewpoints."

Chaffetz said his philosophy of navigating Congress has worked well for him over his two terms.

"You can disagree, but don't be disagreeable. I've taken that to heart," Chaffetz said. "I will vigorously argue policy and principle but do so in a way that people can be proud of the discussion and debate."

dmontero@sltrib.comTwitter: @davemontero —

3rd Congressional District

Soren Simonsen

Age • 44

Degree • Urban planning, University of Texas

Family • Married with three children

Political party • Democrat

Career • Urban planner/architect, Salt Lake City councilman

Jason Chaffetz

Age • 45

Degree • Communications, Brigham Young University

Family • Married with three children

Political party • Republican

Career • Congressman

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