Gov. Norm Bangerter and his Democratic challenger, Ted Wilson, held their first public debate Thursday, but independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook had the last word - literally - even though he wasn't invited.

The Utah Farm Bureau sponsored the debate and decided only the major party candidates would participate. Bangerter and Wilson were on the dais and debated for over an hour. But when the moderator rhetorically said at the end of the debate: "Let's honor these two men - who else would put themselves through this wringer?" Cook, who was sitting on the front row of the audience, jumped to his feet and said, "I would."The response brought loud laughter and some applause. Wilson and Bangerter smiled also and walked from the stage.

It was the only remark made by Cook in this, the first of perhaps a dozen debates by Wilson and Bangerter. Whether Cook will be in other debates, not yet scheduled, will be up to the debates' sponsors, both Wilson and Bangerter said.

Farmers are basically a conservative lot, and the packed audience of more than 350 people generally applauded Bangerter more enthusiastically and longer than Wilson.

The two candidates both made several stinging points in the hourlong debate held in the Olympic Hotel. Neither man clearly performed better than the other. Both seemed relaxed and confident, sharing private jokes and smiling at each other several times while the moderator prepared questions.

Bangerter held a short press conference after the debate and declined to say if he bettered Wilson, who leads him by 23 points in public opinion polls. "I don't keep score. I answered as many questions as he did, so I guess I didn't lose," the governor joked.

Bangerter has been waiting not so patiently for the debates to start. Last spring the governor challenged Wilson to 25 debates, but Wilson wanted to wait. After Wilson was formally nominated as the Democratic candidate, Bangerter challenged him again. Wilson agreed to the Farm Bureau debate but said he wouldn't schedule further debates until after Labor Day, Sept. 5. Bangerter still wants 20 or more debates. Wilson says he'll accept perhaps 10 or 12 invitations.

Neither Wilson nor Bangerter made any of the harsh comments during the debate that they've made previously in other forums when the opponent wasn't present. By and large, it was an amiable con-frontation.

But several zingers landed on both men.

"I don't fault this administration," said Wilson, "except to the extent of failing in the ability to link energy to leadership. We must target what government can and should do, develop the energy and get on with it."

Said Bangerter: "There is a difference between Ted Wilson and Norm Bangerter." One is background. "I came from the private sector, met a payroll and created jobs. I came from the real world." (Wilson has been a teacher and mayor). Another is government record. "In real terms, in four years I've cut government spending between 7-8 percent. While mayor (of Salt Lake City), he proposed tax increases every year and spending went up 2 percent a year. We also have a strong difference on the environment."

Farmers asked how the men stood on public land issues. Wilson said he'd talk straight to them. "I believe in some (more) wilderness areas. But the governor must be a partner in the process."

The governor can't oppose all wilderness, as Wilson said Bangerter did when he signed a legislative resolution against wilderness.

"If we don't act responsibly and face the politics in Congress, we'll have de facto wilderness into the year 2000 and beyond because we'll continue to have these wilderness study areas that don't allow responsible land use," Wilson said.

Bangerter said there can be no renewed economic growth in Utah's rural areas if the federal government continues to lock up land in wilderness. He quoted from a Wilson fund-raising letter signed by Robert Redford, which said that Wilson would protect the environment as they would.

Speaking about bonding, taxes and government needs, Bangerter said, "I won't snow you. I'll give you the good along with the bad, tell it to you as it is."

When Wilson scored with the audience over calling Bangerter's tax-hike, tax-cut recommendations "yo-yo" economics, Bangerter said: "A yo-yo is on a string, and sometimes the string breaks and the yo-yo is caught at the top. That's Salt Lake City when he was mayor - raise taxes but never lower them."