Merrill Cook, who jumped from the Republican Party in 1988 to run an independent campaign for governor and then started his own Independent Party of Utah, is exploring the possibility of returning to the GOP.

"Nothing has been decided yet," Cook said Tuesday. In light of the defeat of the food tax initiative, which was pushed by Cook and Independent Party members, and the loss of each Independent Party candidate in the 1990 election, Cook said he's searching for strategies and alliances "that will give our cause, our candidates, a victory.""I admit it: I'm hungry for a win. We have a good cause - lower taxes and less government - but for some reason we haven't been able to get it across. If we can find our niche in the Republican Party, that should be looked at."

Cook has asked GOP state chairman Richard Snelgrove to hand over Republican Party membership lists gleaned from mass meetings and a large voter identification program conducted as part of the 1990 campaign. Cook wants to poll those Republicans, asking if they'd be willing to accept Independents in their party, asking their favorable/unfavorable opinion of Cook himself, and asking if they believe pouring more money into education is the best solution, or if efficiencies and reforms will better help education in Utah.

Depending on what the results of such a poll are, Cook said he and his party members may decide to join the Republican Party and push their objectives within that structure.

"I know what the Republican Party leaders think of me. Not much. That's why I want to get the lists and go to the rank-and-file. I have a hunch that most of them may feel like we Independents do."

Cook said the Republican Party and its candidates "suffered a real defeat in the last election, whether the leaders want to admit that or not. They lost the (Salt Lake) County Commission, they lost a congressional seat (in the 3rd District) they never should have lost and (Rep. Jim) Hansen almost got beat in the 1st District."

Cook believes "that the Republicans have lost their moorings, their old-time religion of reduced taxes and less government. Maybe we Independents can help them get it back again."

Some have said Cook's "conversion" to the Republican Party is suspect, coming as it does just days after GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter - who Cook challenged in 1988 - announced he isn't running again in 1992. "We had already surveyed 800 people in Salt Lake County asking about the Independents joining the (Republican) Party. The results came in before the governor's announcement. This is not my attempt at running for governor at all. I haven't made that decision and won't for some time. That's way down the road and really has nothing to do with our interest in looking at joining the Republican Party," Cook said.

Cook said the Central Committee of his Independent Party wasn't very enthusiastic about abandoning their party. "But they want their cause to succeed. We're looking at a number of goals - term limitation in state government and the Legislature, a property tax freeze, removing the sales tax support from the Olympic funding should Utah not get the 1998 Games - all kinds of things. The question is, can we fight for those causes within the Republican Party?"

Snelgrove said all Utahns are welcome in the Republican Party. He hasn't yet agreed to turn over the GOP lists to Cook.