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COOK, ANDERSON BELIEVE FERVENTLY IN THEMSELVES

Published: Friday, Oct. 18 1996 12:00 a.m. MDT

For as much as they point out differences between each other, Merrill Cook and Ross Anderson have one great similarity. They are both driven men who passionately believe they are right.

In fact, their convictions about themselves and their causes leave those who advocate practical political strategies wondering how the two of them got to be their parties' nominees in the first place.A prominent Democrat, asked last spring to assess the liabilities that Anderson brought to the 2nd District race, put it this way: "I've known Rocky for years. (Rocky is Anderson's nickname, used by just about anyone who knows him). What you have to understand about Rocky is that he believes completely in what he does. And the fact that he believes so completely makes it, in his mind, acceptable. He doesn't question the legitimacy of other's beliefs, why question his. He doesn't see any political liabilities in his past. (He thinks) people should just accept him."

State Rep. Kelly Atkinson, Anderson's Democratic Party challenger, thought bringing up so-called "liabilities" would convince party primary voters that Anderson couldn't win in November. So they'd pick him, Atkinson figured. But Atkinson was wrong. Anderson, who started the race as an unknown to citizens, won the primary handily.

Cook, on the other hand, is well known.

And his struggle through the Republican nomination process has left party insiders amazed, frustrated and, now, afraid.

Said one Republican leader, "I don't know what we fear most, that Merrill will win and we'll have to to deal with him for two years or that Merrill will lose and we'll have Rocky to deal with for two years."

Before the June primary, Democrats were salivating over the thought of Cook being their opponent. They worried about his personal wealth, true. How much money would he pour into this race?

But, hey, this was Cook, the guy who had lost six races before. This was the guy who, as the main sponsor of two nominally popular ideas - term limits and removing the sales tax from food - still saw those two citizen initiatives fall to defeat at the polls.

Cook had almost become the poster boy for the image of a political loser. If he were nominated, figured a number of Democratic leaders, he'd fail to get the strong support of GOP insiders. Even if he did, "true blue Republicans" - as one Republican put it - wouldn't vote at all in the 2nd District race or would pick a moderate Democrat, if one were available.

But any Democratic joy at the prospect of facing Cook was nothing compared to how the Republicans felt about Anderson.

One GOP insider several weeks before the party conventions in May ticked off on his fingers what Republicans would talk about if Anderson was the nominee: Anderson made trips to Nicaragua in the 1980s personally investigating Ronald Reagan's foreign policy intrusions in the country, he'd sat on the boards of Utah Planned Parenthood and the state chapter of the ACLU, he represented Rachel Bauchman in her lawsuit against West High School's choir singing "religious" holiday songs, he was pro-choice, supported same-sex marriages and was against the death penalty. What more could Republicans ask for, the Republican said.

Standing alone, perhaps Cook or Anderson could have been picked off by opponent sharpshooters. But together, their very own individual political weaknesses seem to become a common strength.

Cook faces his previous losses head-on. He says he's "matured" and grown through those loses, been tested and humbled by the fire of campaigns. He unabashedly says he doesn't regret spending $3 million of his own money over 11 years on running for state school board (1984), Salt Lake mayor (1985), Salt Lake County Commission (1986), governor (1988), governor (1992) and 2nd District (1994). "I've changed Utah for the better," through those races, says Cook.

Anderson doesn't run from his past associations, saying he's proud of standing up for constitutional rights of the poor, the minority, the weak Utahns.

He touts his community involvement, pointing to how one of his lawsuits stopped strip searches of female arrestees in the Salt Lake County Jail and his free representation of friends and family of three murdered Utah women led to a renewed effort to justice. A friend of one of the murdered women says if Anderson hadn't cared and taken up their cause a Utah prison inmate would never have been convicted in the death.

Anderson or Cook. They may be right on an issue, they may be wrong. Neither one, however, seem to ever be in doubt.

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