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In Utah, the state's only Democratic congressman is in a tough battle for his seventh term. Representative Jim Matheson's opponent this time is Mia Love. She is the mayor of a small town in northern Utah, and if elected she could be the first African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress as a Republican.

From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Terry Gildea reports on campaign strategy and what it means to be a Democrat in the red state of Utah.

TERRY GILDEA, BYLINE: Jim Matheson can trace his political roots back to his father, Scott Matheson, the state's last Democratic governor.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MATHESON: I remember even though it was years ago, he'd say, you know, when you've got both the left and right mad at you, you're probably doing the right thing. I think he just took a pragmatic approach to trying to do the right thing to help people. And that's my politics. And that's what I learned from him.

GILDEA: In a state where only 25 percent of residents vote as Democrats, Matheson has successfully gotten enough Republicans to vote for him and keep him in office for the last 12 years. He's done that by portraying his GOP challengers as too conservative, even for Utah. He says his current opponent, Mia Love, fits that mold.

MATHESON: My opponent is beyond Tea Party right. I think that it's all about the issues and the contrast between me being someone who puts Utah first versus someone who's just going to support the party line.

GILDEA: At the State GOP Convention earlier this year, Love soundly defeated the favored candidate, a former state legislator, to seize the party nomination. GOP superstars like House Speaker John Boehner and Arizona Senator John McCain made special trips to Utah to campaign for Love, and she won a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.

MIA LOVE: Mr. President, I'm here to tell you the American people are awake and we're not buying what you're selling in 2012.

GILDEA: Since both Love and Matheson are Mormon, religion hasn't been an issue in the election. Still, Love is focusing her campaign on conservative themes.

LOVE: I do not think that Jim Matheson and the Democratic Party represent Utah's values. We believe in lower taxes, individual liberty, personal responsibility, fiscal discipline. And those are fundamental differences that we're going to discuss.

GILDEA: Matheson in turn has attacked Love on her plan to reduce access to student loans and his opponent's efforts to raise taxes in the town where she is currently mayor.

He also skipped the DNC in Charlotte, rejected the party's endorsement of gay-marriage, and no high profile Democrats have come to Utah on his behalf. In a recent debate with Love broadcast on CBS affiliate KUTV in Salt Lake, Matheson fended off his opponent's efforts to link him to health care overhaul.

LOVE: In 2011, he voted against the repeal of Obamacare and this at has been his position until this spring.

MATHESON: It's pretty clear that my opponent just hasn't done her homework and doesn't know my record. Quite candidly, we voted on Obamacare three different times because I'm on the committee where the bill came from. So I actually had a chance to vote and voted no well before anyone in the Utah delegation had an opportunity to even vote on the bill.

GILDEA: Matheson is a member of the conservative Blue Dog caucus in the House and has opposed his own party on countless occasions. Quin Monson is the Director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. He says Matheson really is an independent voice for Utah.

QUIN MONSON: If you look at his voting record, he's the most conservative Democrat in Congress, which puts him very much in the middle.

GILDEA: A poll published in June by local news organizations put Matheson ahead of Love by 13 points. But just last week, the Love campaign released a poll conducted on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee suggesting Love had surged to a 15 point lead. So it's clear at this point, says Monson, the battle for voters' hearts and minds is still being fought.

MONSON: They're both following exactly the right strategy. He's trying to portray her as too extreme to keep those Republican voters and she's attaching herself to Romney and all sorts of luminaries in an effort to get them back.

GILDEA: And if Love does get those Republican voters back, it could make Utah home to a one-party congressional delegation.

For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea in Salt Lake City.

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