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Cook hopes to lead party

He says he could draw independents into state GOP fold

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WASHINGTON — Republicans who have been worried Rep. Merrill Cook may jump from his party after his primary loss can relax a bit. Cook says he not only wants to stay in the Utah GOP, he wants to lead it.

"I'm considering running for Utah Republican Party chairman," Cook said Wednesday. "I think I could help expand its base and make independents feel more comfortable there." Cook, R-Utah, previously ran for Congress and governor as an independent.

The chairmanship will be decided in a late spring 2001 GOP state convention.

Cook's idea stunned the Utah political leaders with whom the Deseret News talked Wednesday.

"I don't know what to say. I'm very surprised," said House Speaker Marty Stephens. After thinking about it for a moment, Stephens said: "I would counsel Merrill to take his time."

"He's had a bitter, bitter defeat" in the primary and has to "take some time to see what is best for him and the party," said Stephens, R-Farr West, who added that Cook could win the chairmanship.

Utah Democratic Party chairwoman Meg Holbrook, at the State Capitol for legislative meetings, grabbed hold of a marble railing when told of Cook's intentions. "I think he could win," said Holbrook after recovering her equilibrium. "But then he'd know what it's like to have 99 percent of the people mad at you. That's what happens to party chairmen."

"I just want to be involved," Cook said, explaining why he is looking at running for the state chairmanship. "I am committed to the core values of the Republican Party. But I think we could do a better job of making independents in Utah feel welcome. We are all conservatives."

Cook's new thoughts come after two weeks of considering his future after losing the Republican primary to GOP challenger Derek Smith.

Initially, Cook said he was considering a write-in campaign against Smith and Democrat Jim Matheson. Cook blamed state and national party leaders, in part, for his defeat, saying they didn't support him as they promised to or should have. He now says he would run a write-in campaign only if "it were apparent that Smith could not win," and if Cook had the backing of major groups within the party.

Other Republicans give Cook's new idea to run for party chairman mixed reviews. They say he might indeed help with independents. But they say the job usually goes only to someone considered absolutely loyal to the party, and Cook left it previously to run as an independent.

Also, many of the same 2nd District delegates who forced Cook into the primary would be among the state delegates who would select a new party chairman next spring, although chairmen are chosen by all 3,500 state delegates, not just the one-third who vote in the 2nd Congressional District.

However, a number of Republicans said they think Cook could win chairmanship, depending on who else gets in the race and who has the greatest backing of party leaders.

Mike Ridgway, leader of a group of dissatisfied Republican stalwarts who routinely battle party leaders, said his group could support Cook. But Ridgway wasn't ready to endorse Cook now. "I'll go so far as to say that the next chairman won't be the person party leaders want. It will be a grassroots candidate," said Ridgway.

Successful party chairman candidates for the past 30 years, while elected by state delegates, have been hand-picked by the state's GOP congressional delegation and governor, usually with the major GOP incumbents seeking re-election during the chairman's two-year term having a great say in who the officially endorsed chairman candidate was.

But Cook says he does not plan to seek the chairmanship by that closed-door route.

"I haven't talked to the other office holders about it and don't plan to," Cook said. "I want to run this from the bottom-up, by going directly to the delegates. I want them to run their own party."

He said such a campaign could lead to more delegate participation and avoid the kind of unhappiness that was expressed by the booing of many office holders at the last state convention. "I could bring peace to the party," Cook said.

But it depends on what "peace" means. Current state party chairman Rob Bishop, a former Utah House speaker who was asked to be chairman originally by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and others, said he's talked briefly with Cook about running for chairman.

Bishop, who is not running for re-election as chairman next year, said he didn't discourage Cook. "I'm pleased Merrill is staying in the party. But I told him any chairman has to have a good working relationship with the (congressional) delegation. And he knows that," said Bishop.

Cook has been at odds with Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, for years, the battles at times turning ugly. Cannon endorsed Smith at the state GOP convention, a break with political tradition in which incumbents stay neutral or endorse the fellow incumbent. Cook has accused Cannon and his staff of leaking unfavorable rumors about him to the press.

And Cook had a disagreeable primary against Smith and still demands that Smith reveal stock sales that allowed Smith to put more than $550,000 of his own money into the race against Cook. The congressman says he plans to introduce a bill to force such stock-deal disclosures by all candidates. However, Cook has said that if Smith reveals details of his stock trades and they are appropriate under fund-raising guidelines, he will support Smith's candidacy. "I'm no longer asking that he apologize (publicly to Cook) for comments he made during the campaign," Cook said.

But if Smith stumbles, Cook says he is ready to jump in as a write-in candidate. He even talked to Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif., a fellow Mormon, who was the last member of Congress to win a write-in campaign.

How would Cook as GOP Party chairman deal with Congressmen Cannon and Smith, assuming they win this year? Several Utah Republicans asked that question Wednesday.

The party chairman is nonpaid. Cook said, however, the part-time office would fit in nicely with returning to Utah to rebuild his explosives company after years of living on reduced salaries in Congress. "Frankly, I need to make some money, and this could fit in well."

"It's important, given the history of my district," he said referring to former Rep. Enid Greene, R-Utah. She initially refused to give details about the sources of money she used to campaign. It turned out that her husband faked being a millionaire and illegally funneled millions to her race.

"It's a huge loophole in campaign finance laws. If someone did want to get a couple of million dollars into their campaign illegally, it's not that hard. You get someone to pay more than they should for some stock you own, or you have an initial offering that's a bit shady," Cook said.

Cook said Packard won after another Republican ran into scandal over campaign financing, and the party threw its support to Packard. "I would run only if it were clear that Smith could not win," he said.

Of note, Congressional Quarterly this week listed the Utah 2nd District race as the only Republican-held House seat where it feels Democrats are ahead. "The worse rating it ever gave before I lost was a toss up' for that seat," Cook said.

Other Republicans were surprised by Cook's latest move.

Cannon said of a possible Cook chairmanship run: "I think it is an absolutely wonderful idea." He said it would lead to a healthy debate in the party and help hold it together. But he would wait to see who else runs before he decides whom to support.He noted that Cook could have a tough time winning with the same delegates who forced him into a primary _ although the chairmanship is among all delegates, not just the one-third of the delegates that make up the 2nd Congressional District.

"But he has a strong base of support to build on," Cannon said. "Also, not as many people attend conventions in off-years (traditionally, only 30 percent to 40 percent), so he could organize his forces to show up and win."

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, said Cook's latest move "is very interesting." He said Cook has organizational skills and attraction to independents that could help the party. But he said past defections to run as an independent could hurt him with longtime party-faithful delegates.

Cook said, "I know I have made mistakes. I've put my foot in my mouth too many times. But I've worked my guts out with the needs at heart of my constituents. I feel I have earned the chance for this" possible run at party chairman.

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com or lee@desnews.com