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There's blood in the water.

Gov. Gary Herbert's campaign has so bungled its reaction to criticism from Democrat Peter Corroon that a handful of Republican lawmakers say Herbert has assured he will face a GOP challenge in 2012, assuming he beats Corroon in November.

A half-dozen GOP lawmakers, all speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to alienate their party's sitting governor, expressed disbelief and frustration at how Herbert has dealt with the Corroon challenge.

"I think he'll have a very legitimate challenger, if not challengers. I think that is becoming more and more the conventional wisdom," said one Republican lawmaker. "It doesn't ultimately feel like an open and transparent campaign, and there's an adage that says if you're explaining, you're losing. He's been doing an awful lot of explaining."

Said another GOP legislator: "In politics, people look for vulnerability, and he's shown significant vulnerability this cycle.

"I really think Gary has bought himself a challenge," he said.

Herbert campaign spokesman Don Olsen said he would "respectfully disagree" that the campaign has been mishandled.

"I think quite the contrary. I think he has shown himself to be decisive and I think he has shown he can take a shot, and the surveys that have been done are bearing that out," Olsen said. "I do not think he has shown weakness in this campaign at all."

Herbert has spent the past several weeks explaining his actions as governor, defending himself from insinuations by the Corroon campaign that big donors to Herbert's campaign got special access, won contracts and were given other state perks.

That includes a meltdown at a news conference that Herbert called, where it was revealed that the state paid $13 million to a losing bidder for the $1.1 billion Interstate 15 reconstruction project to settle claims that the results were skewed in favor of a Herbert donor.

"I think he's got a blind spot on this issue," said one GOP member. "It has stuck to him a little bit because it looks bad. It's the amounts [of money]. The amounts just look bad."

When Herbert inherited the Governor's Office last year after then Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was nominated to become ambassador to China, some prominent Republicans took measure of Gary Herbert, with a handful contemplating a run against the suddenly elevated lieutenant governor.

But Herbert solidified his standing and, one by one, each potential challenger bowed out of the race.

With Herbert having to stand for re-election in 2012 if he wins in November, some may now be reconsidering their options, the lawmakers who talked to The Tribune said. The potential challengers most often named are House Speaker David Clark and U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

"Of those three, Jason wins," said one legislator.

Chaffetz, who has also had his name floated as a potential challenger to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, said Wednesday that it is flattering to be mentioned.

"It's way premature to think about. It's a decision that's 14 to 15 months away," Chaffetz said.

Kelly Patterson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said the lawmakers might be underestimating Herbert, and how he governs for the next two years will matter more than how he campaigned during the past two weeks.

It's Herbert's first statewide race at the top of the ticket, and candidates grow, Patterson said.

"Individuals acquire the skills about how to campaign, how to handle attacks. … All of those dimensions are really important about how to conduct a solid campaign, and no one really gets it 100 percent right the first time through," Patterson said.

As one of the lawmakers described it: "It's a crucible you pass through. It's a tempering because Gary hasn't had tough campaigns in the past, and he will be a much more formidable candidate in the future." —

Running for a two-year term

Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon are running to complete the second term won by former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Under state law, the winner of this year's special election will then have to turn around and stand for re-election in 2012.