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Cook, Eskelsen: fewer debates?

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Campaign junkies and strategists knew the 2nd Congressional District race between Merrill Cook and Lily Eskelsen would be short - a four-week sprint to the finish line with TV commercials and debates packed together.

But it looks like it will be even shorter than expected. And if the U.S. House doesn't adjourn in time for Cook to make two scheduled debates this Friday, citizens will get only one chance to actually attend a public debate for the 2nd District - an almost unheard of circumstance.Cook missed a scheduled debate Monday at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He remained in Washington, D.C., where the GOP-controlled Congress struggles to pass budget bills acceptable to President Clinton. The latest Deseret News/KSL poll shows Cook ahead by 8 percentage points among all 2nd District residents but virtually tied with Eskelsen among registered voters.

Congressional leaders hope to adjourn Thursday. But if Cook and colleagues miss that deadline, Cook also misses two debates scheduled for

Friday. "I hope all the (missed) debates can be rescheduled. I want to get back and debate and campaign," Cook said Monday afternoon. "This is very frustrating," said Eskelsen. "People need to see Merrill and I standing next to each other, compare us directly on the issues. All I can do is say I'll debate him anywhere, anytime."

The rest of the Cook/Eskelsen debate schedule includes mostly media debates for local TV and radio stations.

The only really public debate would be on Oct. 22 when a forum sponsored by three local media outlets hosts a debate at 7 p.m. in the council chambers of the City/County Building.

Historically, incumbents don't like to debate challengers. Cook - who was a challenger six times - used to take every opportunity he could find to debate those he challenged.

While Cook did agree to 10 debates, or joint appearances, with Eskelsen this year, that number can drop to as low as seven.

Eskelsen wants some shots at Cook, too. But Monday she found herself alone at the Hinckley Institute.

She still hammered Cook on a number of issues, especially his vote last week for an omnibus natural resources bill that ultimately failed badly in the House.

Cook had promised that he'd vote against a bill that would have changed current federal land management law and set aside a variety of lands in the San Rafael Swell in south-central Utah.

The Swell bill was rolled into a huge bill that also included Gov. Mike Leavitt's big land swap with the federal government. Eskelsen said the big bill was a cynical attempt to hide the bad Swell law in with a $50 million cash payment for Utah school kids.

Cook voted for the omnibus bill, complaining all the while from the House floor that he'd support Utah schoolchildren over the flawed Swell measure, but that he shouldn't have to make that choice. But Eskelsen points out that Leavitt's land swap bill - a single-issue measure - passed the U.S. House months ago and was sitting in the Senate, ready to be voted on, and Cook could have voted no on the omnibus bill knowing the other would pass. Cook wasn't so sure, however, that the swap bill in the Senate would pass. In fact, he says he was assured the single-issue swap bill would fail in the Senate. (It passed two days later, "much to my delight," says Cook.)

In the end, Cook and Eskelsen both got what they wanted - the singular swap bill passed, the Swell measure died.

Still, Monday Eskelsen made hay of Cook's House vote. "I'm mystified that he would break his promise," she said.

But Cook's camp points out that if he had voted against the omnibus bill, which included the swap, then Cook could have been attacked for voting against Utah school kids. Eskelsen "would have attacked me even more strongly if I'd voted against the school kids," Cook said Monday afternoon.

"In the end, you gotta do what you gotta do."

Other points Eskelsen made - which she said she'd have liked to ask Cook about if he'd shown up - include:

- Social Security can likely be "saved" for the Baby Boomers. One idea she likes is, after growing federal revenues truly balance the federal budget in five years, money now going to pay interest on the national debt can, over 30 years, be "direct transfers to Social Security." While that may be enough cash, if it isn't, "a bipartisan solution can be found." Congress just has to get the backbone to do something, she added.

- She, not Cook, is one who will fight for environmental protection. "I fully support HR1500 (the 5.7-million-acre wilderness bill that continues to languish in Congress). I'll be a strong voice" to protect public lands for future generations, she says.

- The International Monetary Fund is a flawed system that must be reformed. But for now it is the only system, and the United States must act through the IMF to help failing economies, or the U.S. economy will surely suffered adverse consequences.