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Salt Lake City and Anchorage, Alaska, appear to share a close lead in the race for the U.S. bid for the 1998 Winter Olympics, according to U.S. Olympic Committee officials.

But there's a long way to go until these two cities and four others post their bids before the USOC in Colorado Springs, Colo., this June, and other cities are making a strong showing to become "America's Choice" as well.Some members of the USOC executive board, meeting here Saturday, were willing to offer qualified speculation on how the race is shaping up.

"I would say the two favored cities would be Anchorage and Salt Lake City," said George Howie, speed-skating representative on the executive board.

"Salt Lake and Anchorage right now are the two leaders," said Executive Board Member George Killian, representing the National Junior College Athletic Association.

"But it could surprise me and go completely in the other direction," Howie added.

Several USOC officials lauded Utah's recently passed funding mechanism providing $4 million annually to build Olympic facilities that must be built by the USOC's chosen city under a 1988 requirement.

"The only way you're ever going to get the Olympics . . . is to get this Olympics family knowing that you really mean business and Salt Lake City's been doing that," said James Carnes, chairman of the USOC's site selection committee.

Anchorage, however, labeled the state's funding plan a weak ring in its Olympics effort because the funding is contingent upon a positive referendum vote this fall. Denver turned down the Olympics in a similar 1972 vote.

"The last thing we need is a situation where we award the Games and then withdraw because of a lack of public support," said Dave Baumeister, director of the Anchorage Organizing Committee.

Two-time USOC Olympics candidate Anchorage also has galvanized much support from not only the USOC but also the International Olympic Committee, which must choose the actual 1998 Winter Olympics host in 1991.

"I think that among the cities in the United States that Anchorage has the best chance (of winning the IOC bid) simply because of knowing people," said IOC member Anita DeFrantz.

But while the city's name continually was dropped in conversations with USOC members, other cities - including Denver; Reno-Lake Tahoe, Nev.; Lake Placid, N.Y.; and Klamath Falls, Ore. - also grabbed the USOC's attention.

"At this moment I would have to say that they all have a good chance," said a diplomatic Carnes, whose committee studies bid proposals before presenting them to the executive board.

Reno-Tahoe officials touted their solution to the USOC requirement for building Olympics facilities as a better mousetrap than Utah's recently enacted Olympics funding mechanism.

Nevada has a commitment from a consortium of investment bankers to underwrite a bobsled-luge run for up to $50 million in private money, said Frank Tindal, of the Reno/Tahoe Organizing Committee.

"The correspondence that our electorate will receive from us will be an invitation to come to the events rather than to bring their checkbooks,' Tindal said.

"I think Tahoe is a pretty strong competitor," said David Heim, executive director for the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. "I'm impressed with the can-do attitude out of Tahoe.

"I see three front-runners," Heim added, listing Salt Lake City, Reno-Lake Tahoe and Anchorage.

Although one USOC official said Denver "is coming on strong," many said the Mile-High City, which voted down the Olympics after receiving the USOC nod in 1972, is a late comer to the bid for the 1998 Games and, consequently, a long shot.

"Denver would be an exciting place to host the Olympics, but let's say they're a decided underdog. They're an underdog - no ifs, ands or buts," Killian said.

Even Fred Fisher, executive director of the Denver/Colorado Winter Games Committee, said Salt Lake City has an edge.

"I have to believe that Anchorage is still king of the hill . . . but if you forced me to take a guess, I'll say Salt Lake is in second place," he said.

Lake Placid, which held the 1980 Winter Games, is "not real strong," Carnes said. Klamath Falls, a small community in southern Oregon, has received little attention this weekend.

The contenders

SALT LAKE CITY: Olympic venues are near transportation hubs. The city's organizers, by hosting events like the 1988 U.S. Gymnastics Trials, are known in USOC circles.

ANCHORAGE: The Alaskan hopeful has taken its bid to the IOC twice, but many officials complain the city has not supported Olympic athletes by building sports facilities.

RENO-LAKE TAHOE: This bidder promises a well-financed bobsled-luge run and hosted the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley.

DENVER: It has many facilities in place, including an Olympic-class ski jump in Steamboat Springs. Many USOC delegates complain the venues are scattered.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y.: It hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics and still has facilities in place. But it is far from major transportation access and has little housing.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore.: This small town in southern Oregon is newcomer to the bidding process and has received little attention.