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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended April 30, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 02May00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

Cook Struggles To Get On Ballot
(Utah Incumbent Seeks Name on Ballot)
Associated Press 28Apr00 N2
By Robert Gehrke: Associated Press Writer

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- Two-term Utah Congressman Merrill Cook is strugling to get on the November ballot because of his damaged image and two multimillionaire challengers. And, even if the LDS Church member can best both challengers in the Republican primary, he is still behind the Democrat in the race, rasing fears among National Republicans that they will loose the seat, and possibly the House.

Nationally, republicans have just a six-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, leading Majority Leader Dick Armey to tell Cook supporters, "I want him back and I treasure him as a colleague. He's taken a lot of guff ... and I think it's time we stand up and thank him for what he has done. Thanks Merrill. I love you, man." Armey says Cook's district is one of the Democrats' top three targeted races.

But the two Republicans challenging Cook aren't impressed by Armey's remarks, "No amount of support from the national party solves the problem of an incumbent that can't beat the Democrat in the fall," said Derek Smith, 35, a computer company founder who is one of the challengers. Even GOP colleague Chris Cannon suggested that voters should look at the challengers, Smith or 28-year-old Jeff Wright, a venture capitalist. "Merrill has had some very public problems. It's so ugly I don't think he can be elected," Cannon said Wednesday.

Cook's history in elections hasn't been a very successful one. He has run unsuccessfully for school board, county commissioner, mayor, governor (twice) and Congress before winning his seat in 1996. One of his races for governor came when he left the GOP to challenge popular Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter. He won his seat in 1996 following incumbent Enid Greene's fund-raising scandal.

Last election, in 1998, Cook had trouble defeating school teacher Lily Eskelsen and managed to get banished from Utah Republican Party headquarters for a profanity-laden tirade, and then fired chief of staff Janet Jenson. Jenson then publically accused Cook of being delusional, "Merrill has taken up permanent residence in whacko land," she wrote in an office e-mail. "If he asks you to fax his underwear to the Speaker's office, please just do it."

While Cook acknowledges some trouble, he says he is "an incumbent with a solid record who gets back up when he gets knocked down." "Have I put my foot in my mouth? Have I made some mistakes? Of course. But all these exaggerated stories ... are just fairy tales," Cook said.

But his troubles haven't quite ended. A jury ruled earlier this month that he had failed to pay $175,000 to the campaign manager for his 1996 campaign. The judgement means Cook may also need to pay up to $500,000 in attorneys fees for the three-year-long court case.

Washington pundit Stuart Rothenberg, who edits The Rothenberg Political Report says Cook is one of 11 incumbents out of about 400 who could lose this fall. Because Cook looked so likely to fail, the GOP started looking for an alternative, talking with six potential candidates before Wright and Smith decided to try. But none of the three seem likely to win the 60 percent of delegates at the state party convention necessary for the nomination, leaving the party with a June primary for the decision.

Meanwhile, LDS Church member Jim Matheson, a Democrat, is waiting for an opponent and building a war chest, "My campaign, in terms of what we're going to do, isn't going to be altered by the candidate who comes out on the other side," said Matheson, son of the late Gov. Scott Matheson. "This is definitely a winnable race for me."


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