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Washington • Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love says Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is an ineffective, "squishy" moderate who has alienated Democrats and has no clout with Republicans.
Matheson says Love is a tea-party extremist who, if elected, would only add to the polarization crippling Congress.
The battle lines are already well-defined in the potential rematch in Utah's 4th Congressional District, which Matheson won by fewer than 800 votes November. And it probably surprises no one that the candidates reject each other's criticisms as they battle for early position in what is likely to be the state's marquee 2014 election contest.
"I am not an extremist. I've never been an extremist," Love said Tuesday during a visit to Washington, D.C.. "I've talked to other tea-party members and, you know, the tea [partyers] have different ideas of who they are and what they believe in and what I'm telling you now is they've been the ones who label me. I don't want anyone to put me in a box."
Ties to Lee • It's indisputable that Love attempted to court tea-party groups when she first ran for Congress in 2012 and that her campaign had close ties to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a national figure in the far-right movement.
Lee's supporters threw a rally in the senator's honor after he came under fire for his strategy to tie the budget to an effort to strip funding from the Affordable Care Act, a move that led to the 17-day government shutdown. Love was the state's most prominent politician to stand by his side, but has since reiterated that she wouldn't have backed his plan if she were in office.
Instead, Love said, she would have followed the path taken by Utah's three House GOP members who tried to dismantle the health law, but not at the risk of holding up all government funding.
Matheson largely voted with the GOP during the shutdown impasse, but he argues the tea-party movement has pushed things too far.
"Talking to people in Utah, they are not looking for this extreme tea-party agenda," he said Tuesday. "They want constructive dialogue from their elected officials."
The tea party, even in deep red Utah, is not as popular as it was in 2009 and 2010, and Love has consistently tried to widen her appeal to Utahns while saying she's for fiscal discipline, limited government and personal responsibility.
"I am running as a Republican. But in my city, just because I listen to Republicans doesn't mean I only listen to Republicans," she said. "Am I going to listen to other people if they have an idea and they have a solution? Absolutely."
Nice guy, no clout • The mayor, who has become a national figure in the conservative movement, said Matheson is a nice guy but one who has put himself in a corner by being the House's most conservative Democrat.
"He has no influence on the Democrat side or the Republican side. He lacks any ability to get anything done and that's a problem," she said. "I know he has no influence. Twelve years and he's not been able to lead on any legislation that's become law."
Matheson said that's simply not true and pointed to Monday's vote in the Senate to approve a bill that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to track drugs through the manufacturing process to combat counterfeit pharmaceuticals. He was the lead Democrat in the House on the bipartisan measure.
"I have a record of effectiveness and also a record of respect on both sides of the aisle that suits me well," he said.
"I don't buy into this polarized dynamic that dominates the cable channels. She likes to go on the cable channels. I just listen to my constituents back in Utah. I know what they want, which is why I have been elected seven times and that's what gives me confidence going forward."
Party politics • The national political parties have once again targeted Utah's 4th District race. Love was in Washington for meetings with the National Republican Campaign Committee, while just two blocks away Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee weighed in on the race.
"Jim Matheson is a perfect fit for a centrist in a centrist district," he said in a round-table interview with reporters. "There is a reason Mia Love couldn't beat Jim Matheson with Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket. … People love Jim Matheson. They know he represents their values. They know he is effective. So once again Mia Love is sadly misreading the district she wants to represent."
Love believes the Democrats and Matheson underestimate her.
She noted that she has a beefed-up campaign team led by Dave Hansen, who ran Sen. Orrin Hatch's successful re-election effort last year.
Hansen notes Republican congressional candidates have historically done well in midterm elections. She has raised money at a faster clip than Matheson. And while she hasn't won her party's nomination yet, she has locked up support from most of the GOP establishment.
"I have a lot more experience. I have a lot more knowledge in terms of what's going on, current issues and things we really need to focus on," Love said. "I'm not here to waste anybody's time."