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South Jordan • Five Republican challengers took turns swinging at Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday, making a case for why they would do a better job as the state's top executive.

The five challengers argued each of them would do a better job of controlling state government and standing up to Washington, D.C. on education, public lands and health care than Herbert has done.

"I'm doing a pretty good impression of a pin cushion," Herbert joked, but defended his record as governor, saying the economy has turned around and unemployment is falling.

"I think we've got the thing on the right road, going in the right direction," he said. "I know there are a few naysayers out there. Most of them are running for governor against me."

It was the first debate of the six candidates since mid-March, although they have spoken at various candidate forums around the state. Republican delegates will gather April 21 to whittle the field. If one candidate gets 60 percent of the delegate support, he will win the nomination. If not, the top two vote-getters will compete in a June primary.

Peter Cooke, a retired two-star general and businessman, is the only Democrat seeking the office.

Morgan Philpot blasted Herbert, chiding him for saying in a recent survey by the Utah Foundation that conditions in the state had improved over the last five years. Maybe that is true for Herbert, who has been able to rake in millions of dollars in campaign contributions and has received a paycheck from taxpayers for 21 years, Philpot said.

"Of course it's better for him. What about us?" Philpot said.

The challengers said Herbert has not taken a strong enough stand against illegal immigration. David Kirkham, a manufacturer of sports cars, said Herbert's biggest mistake was signing HB116, legislation passed in 2011 to create a state-specific guest worker program.

Kirkham said complying with the state law would violate federal law. When he raised the issue with the Governor's Office, Kirkham said Lt. Gov. Greg Bell told him that "everyone concedes the law is not constitutional."

Businessman William Skokos said that, with 100,000 immigrants in the state, places like the National Security Agency office, Dugway Proving Ground and Hill Air Force Base are targets for terrorist attacks. "It's not a matter of if," he said. "It's a matter of when."

Philpot said no one in the state should be able to receive any state or federal benefit unless they can prove they are citizens.

Herbert defended his record, saying immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility, but he supports electronic verification of citizenship for new hires and penalties for those who hire people illegally.

The candidates agreed that the states need to regain control of federal lands within the state. Herbert said he supports litigation as well as negotiation with the federal government, and cooperating with other governors.

Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, said Herbert hasn't been aggressive enough in using the tools the Legislature has given him, including a bill Sumsion sponsored two years ago seeking to use eminent domain power to claim ownership of federal lands.

Skokos said he would force the federal government to be on the defensive.

"I will attack the federal government," he said. "I will take the federal lands back and let them sue us."

Kirkham said he supports the concept of controlling lands in the state, but cautioned that Skokos' approach is too brash.

"I'm not sure I'm a fan of this 'Occupy Wall Street' method of getting our lands back," Kirkham said. "You're going to have a real hard time governing from a jail cell."

The candidates also criticized Herbert for not pulling Utah out of the Common Core educational standards, a voluntary set of standards put together by the states, arguing they are just another Washington mandate.

"When are we going to learn that whenever you invite the federal government into the tent there are strings attached," said Kirkham. When the "camel's nose" gets under the tent, he said, soon the rear end is there, too "and you have to clean up the mess."

JaKell Sullivan, a delegate from Sandy, said she came to the debate wanting to hear the candidates respond to the question about the Common Core, which she considers a federal overreach.

"I liked everyone's answer up there except the governor's. … He's going along with it because he doesn't have the same understanding of states' rights as the other candidates," said Sullivan, who says she would like to see Philpot and Sumsion combine on the same ticket.

Sumsion said he opposed the state's efforts for health reform, including the health care exchange that has been established, because they expand the government's role in the field.

Philpot, likewise, called them "soft-pedaled versions" of "Obamacare."

Sumsion said Medicaid expenses will break the state and the governor should have resisted expanding the program to cover autism services for children.

"The governor needs to show leadership," Sumsion said. "Veto a bill, even if it's veto-proof."

Herbert retorted that the Legislature passed the bill and if Sumsion had a problem with bills passed by lawmakers, he should stay in the body and vote against them. When it comes to health reform, the governor said, states should lead and share the best ideas.

Candidate Lane Ronnow said the recent breach of state health records, which compromised data of some 800,000 Utahns, shows Utah doesn't do a good job managing health care.

Philpot said the governor hasn't done enough to control spending, arguing that it has grown by $1 billion during Herbert's tenure — a claim that Herbert disputed, arguing the budget has been flat.

In fact, both were right. The state budget was $13.2 billion when Herbert took office. The next year, fiscal year 2011, it slipped to $11.9 billion. This year, the Legislature approved and Herbert signed a $12.9 billion budget.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke