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Merrill is thinking of running — again

When Merrill Cook lost the 2000 Republican primary to Derek Smith, the two-term congressman left for his upper Avenues home defeated and discouraged.

That same night, he rummaged through a back closet, found an old photo and propped it on the end table of his living room overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. It has stayed there ever since.

"And it will stay there until I win my next race," he says.

The photo shows Cook, clad in a tuxedo at some Washington, D.C., shindig, posing between first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Bill Clinton — the same Bill Clinton that Cook proudly remembers he voted against more often than all but five others in the 435-member House. Those are good memories, he insists.

These days, Merrill Cook wants to be governor. He has an advisory committee in place, he's been meeting with GOP delegates and he's printed up some inexpensive fliers touting himself as "Utah's conservative candidate for governor."

"I think over the next year conservatives will rally around me as their conservative candidate," he told the Deseret Morning News. "I am the only one (of the many GOP hopefuls) with a record of performance."

And don't expect the new Merrill Cook to be all that different from the old one, although he is physically much leaner. He's lost roughly 100 pounds over the past year on the Atkins diet. (He still loves to dine at Sizzler, but he now orders vegetables on the side instead of potatoes.)

But Cook's message is as familiar as old blue jeans: Cut taxes and cut government.

"People know me, for good or bad," he said, "and they know what I would do in the governor's office. They know I would work with the Legislature to cut government by 6 to 7 percent, to cap income and sales taxes at 5 percent, cap property taxes and remove the sales tax on food. Sound like 1988? That message was popular then, and it is still popular today."

But the road back is crowded with GOP heavyweights, people like Jon Huntsman Jr., Speaker of the House Marty Stephens, former Speaker Nolan Karras and former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, among others.

"I can't imagine he would have much of a chance with the cast of characters," said Ted Wilson, who lost the 1988 gubernatorial race in large part because of Cook, who ran as an independent. "But he is always dangerous. He can always play spoiler."

As an independent candidate for governor in 1988, Cook finished third, drawing votes away from Wilson and GOP incumbent Gov. Norm Bangerter, who came from behind to win re-election. Four years later, also running as an independent, he finished only 8 percentage points behind Mike Leavitt and well ahead of Democrat Stuart Hanson.

Cook is clearly a wild card. He is a populist, some might say a maverick, in GOP politics.

Last month at the state GOP convention, Cook started shouting "baloney" at Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who was defending the Patriot Act — the anti-terrorism law that conservatives and liberals alike fear threatens basic civil liberties.

Cook plans to spend the next several weeks hosting 10- to 15-delegate meetings around the state. "If by Thanksgiving or Christmas it looks like I have tied down the conservative element, I will run for governor," he said.

If not? "Then people don't want a real conservative. But I don't think that is the case," he said.

Cook has run for office nine times, losing seven. But his approach to lower taxes and smaller government has broad appeal across party lines and to independent voters.

He didn't win his first election until he rejoined the Republican Party in 1996, narrowly surviving a state GOP convention to win a Republican primary and defeat now-Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson in the final 2nd Congressional District contest. He won re-election in 1998.

Wilson, the now-retired director of the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Cook's base includes disaffected Democrats, renegade Republicans and independents who eschew party politics. And Cook has, in times past, had a voter base of about 20 percent — enough to be taken seriously, Wilson said, but not enough to win as an independent.

Former Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis, who beat Cook in the 1985 mayoral race, recalled that Cook had strong support from conservatives and the elderly, especially on the city's west side.

"The city is a tough place for a conservative to get elected now," DePaulis said. "His chances are better in a gubernatorial race where his appeal (to elderly and conservative voters) is statewide."

Of course, that all presumes Cook can make it out of the state GOP convention.

"I sit back and kind of admire the amazing addiction Merrill has to politics," Wilson said. "I am kind of pulling for him in a strange, weird sort of way."

Cook has been, for the most part, out of the game the past three years.

A year ago, he failed in a last-minute bid to win the GOP nomination to reclaim the seat that Democrat Jim Matheson won in 2000 and retained in 2002. He was eliminated in the 2002 GOP convention that saw 12 Republicans in the 2nd District race.

And he was but a few minutes from filing to run for Salt Lake City mayor last month, even going so far as leaving his wife, Camille, waiting at the city recorder's office for him to come down and sign the papers.

Cook balances his time these days between a daily radio talk show and efforts to resurrect Cook Slurry, his Minnesota explosive company that went belly-up in 1999 while he was serving in Congress.

He has been meeting with suppliers, old customers and investors. He said he will probably sell the company but remain as a consultant.

But he really wants to get back in the business of politics.

He insists he will not bolt the Republican Party, as he did in 1986 before returning 10 years later. "But I am not going to change my independent mind."


E-mail: spang@desnews.com