The winners won't call it a victory and the losers aren't ready to concede defeat after voters decisively rejected the Independent Party's initiative to take the sales tax off food.

The mood was subdued at gatherings Tuesday night of both the Independent Party and the state Board of Regents, which led the campaign against the initiative."There's nothing to gloat about tonight. We don't believe it is a major victory because the challenges to higher education still exist," Regent Michael Leavitt said.

"We're not accepting defeat. This is just another skirmish," Independent Party Chairman Merrill Cook said. He told reporters he is considering circulating another initiative petition to limit legislative terms.

The initiative lost in every county except Kane, where voters approved it by a 16-vote margin, 868 votes to 852. In Salt Lake County, where supporters hoped for a strong showing, the initiative lost by more than 10,000 votes.

Leavitt was one of only a dozen or so higher-education officials who watched the election returns from the University of Utah Alumni House, where most of the food on a candle-lit buffet table went untouched.

The more than 50 members of the Independent Party at the Vintage Square reception center, 1760 S. 1100 East, weren't eating much either after early reports showed the initiative lagging in vote totals.

"I don't think you can print how I feel. I'm really disheartened," said Dalane England of Bountiful as she kept an eye on her 2-year-old daughter, Erika. "I don't think people are willing to stand up for what they want."

Cook said voters were swayed by threats from higher education and other sectors of government that cuts in service would have to be made if the sales tax came off food.

"People want the lower tax, but they're very willing to listen to what the government says," Cook said. "People don't want to take a chance on whether it's true or not."

Leavitt said voters understood the consequences of passing the initiative. "Our message got through. People knew a decision to vote yes on this would have seriously damaged higher education."

State government alone stood to lose an estimated $90 million in sales tax revenue if the initiative passed. Local governments, the Utah Transit Authority and the state Olympics-bid fund would have been out a total of $23 million.

Supporters argued government could absorb the sales tax loss by spending surplus funds, eliminating tax breaks given to big businesses and cutting government waste.

Opponents began surfacing last spring after Gov. Norm Bangerter vowed to cut state spending if voters took the sales tax off food. Higher education stood to lose the most money because it takes the biggest share of sales tax.

The effort to take the sales tax off food was the second unsuccessful initiative drive by Cook and his followers. In 1988, three tax-cutting initiatives were also soundly defeated by voters.

Cook has also lost at the polls as a candidate, most recently as an independent in the 1988 governor's race. Tuesday night, he said he may run

again for the statehouse in 1992.

This year's initiative campaign was quieter on both sides. Although a long list of organizations came out against taking the sales tax off food, only the regents and University of Utah students actively campaigned.

Even their efforts were limited. Student-funded ads began appearing on the sides of city buses a few weeks ago, but the regents' radio commercials and newspaper advertisement started only last week.

The Independent Party collected more than 100,000 signatures statewide to win a place on the ballot for the initiative, but that's where the similarity to the 1988 campaign ended.

Democrats, who fought the 1988 tax initiatives, joined the effort to take the sales tax off food, but party officials said they believed tax increases would likely be needed to make up the loss.

And a deliberate effort was made to distance this campaign from the 1988 race, best remembered for the huge rallies on the steps of the State Capitol where tax protesters screamed "No more taxes" at the politicians inside.

Cook said Tuesday night that initiative supporters may have been too quiet. "We wanted to look respectful. Maybe we were too respectful. We wanted to shake the image of the tax protesters of two years ago. Maybe we went too far."

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((CHART)

Food-tax initiative

Districts

County Reporting For Against

Beaver 6 of 6 621 994

Box Elder 36 of 36 3,789 6,857

Cache 59 of 59 4,931 12,592

Carbon 18 of 18 2,182 2,938

Daggett 2 of 2 177 242

Davis 164 of 164 20,250 25,062

Duchesne 12 of 12 1,283 2,067

Emery 12 of 12 1,531 2,134

Garfield 10 of 10 667 834

Grand 11 of 11 1,098 1,586

Iron 21 of 21 1,974 3,523

Juab 12 of 12 951 1,274

Kane 10 of 10 868 852

Millard 17 of 17 1,347 2,256

Morgan 8 of 8 850 1,523

Piute 5 of 5 255 375

Rich 5 of 5 192 501

Salt Lake 702 of 702 86,227 96,736

San Juan 20 of 20 1,919 1,994

Sanpete 26 of 26 1,693 2,823

Sevier 23 of 23 1,526 2,915

Summit 26 of 26 2,165 3,237

Tooele 39 of 39 3,279 4,178

Uintah 21 of 21 2,230 3,370

Utah 148 of 148 25,821 28,926

Wasatch 15 of 15 1,458 2,028

Washington 43 of 43 5,473 5,546

Wayne 7 of 7 372 743

Weber 151 of 151 19,055 26,487

Totals 1,629 of 1,629 194,184 244,593