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BACK IN THE FOLD? COOK'S RETURN TO THE GOP SEEMS LEGITIMATE

Merrill Cook seems to really be back in the Republican Party.

I confess, I had my doubts early on.Since Utah doesn't have voter registration by party, how is one to really tell what party someone belongs to?

Cook said he was back, that he may have been out of the party but the party was never out of him. (He jumped out, you may remember, in 1988 to challenge then-GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter and stayed out to run independent candidacies in 1992 and 1994).

He said if he didn't come out of the Republican State Convention this year in his 2nd Congressional District race he'd still be a Republican; he'd support the GOP nominee.

But I wondered what he'd do if GOP insiders connived to defeat him in the state convention.

If they did connive, it didn't work. By a scant nine-vote swing, Cook finished second in multiple ballots and goes into a primary against former FBI-agent-turned-CPA R. Todd Neilson.

Neilson almost got Cook in the convention.

Ballot after ballot, Cook barely edged out other candidates, and Neilson continued to lead the pack. In the final ballot, if nine delegates who voted for Cook had voted for Neilson - or if 18 delegates who left the convention early had stuck around and voted for Neilson - Cook would have been eliminated.

But it's not unusual for political careers to survive or die by narrow margins in the Republican State Convention.

Now Cook is where he's always wanted to be - in a primary race for the Republican nomination. Cook has been there only once before - in 1986 he beat a fellow Republican for the party nomination in a Salt Lake County Commission race. Cook was the front-runner, polls showed, but lost the race narrowly to former Democratic Commissioner David Watson that year.

It was fear, I believe, of the GOP convention that took Cook out of the party in 1988. Even though Bangerter was languishing in the public opinion polls (down 35 points at one time to Democrat Ted Wilson), Republicans seemed hooked on the governor. (Jon Huntsman got in briefly against Bangerter, but he too got out of the race).

For whatever reasons, Republicans are loath to challenge a sitting officeholder, no matter what kind of political trouble the incumbent may be in.

Cook jumped from the party that year. But a strange thing happened, if you recall. In the state GOP convention in 1988, some anti-tax delegates, many supporters of Cook, tried to get the convention to allow Cook in - to challenge Bangerter. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Jake Garn encouraged Bangerter to agree to the last-minute challenge (which would likely have been illegal anyway since Cook filed as an independent, not as a Republican). Garn and Hatch argued that Bangerter would 70-percent Cook in the convention and eliminate him.

In any case, Cook was traveling that Saturday and couldn't or wouldn't come to the convention, pro-Cook delegates couldn't promise that a convention-defeated Cook wouldn't run an independent race anyway. Ultimately, Cook supporters failed to get Cook's name placed in nomination.

Now Cook is back and in a primary where he can use his name identification and personal wealth to his advantage.

A number of so-called experts attending this year's state GOP convention said Cook would be beaten there, that "loyal" Republican delegates wouldn't advance to a primary a man who had run against three previous GOP candidates - Bangerter, Gov. Mike Leavitt and Rep. Enid Greene.

But the experts were wrong, as is so often the case in politics and one reason I never call myself an expert.

I happened to sit in the Cottonwood High School auditorium in front of a former GOP House member who was a delegate. Eavesdropping, I heard some interesting comments about Cook (he liked Cook's independence) and so-called Republican leaders (he was tired of them telling him how to vote).

The secret ballot is a wonderful thing. It lets "loyal" party members smile, shake the hands of party leaders and vote against their wishes every time.

Merrill Cook seems to be back in the Republican Party. Now we'll see what GOP primary voters think of his return.