Even as a boy growing up in an East High School neighborhood, Merrill Cook wasn't afraid to stand up for his political beliefs, no matter how unpopular they were.

It was Cook who argued on behalf of losing candidates Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater in mock debates he organized among his friends during the 1960 and 1964 presidential elections.Although the majority of voters nationwide didn't support the conservative views of the Republican Party's nominees in those elections, Cook's unswerving confidence that he was right helped convince his fellow debaters.

Utah voters have never been persuaded to elect Cook, but his confidence is still strong enough that despite three political defeats he is back again in a long-shot independent race for governor.

"He's never been bashful for standing up for what he believed in, no matter who's on the other side. That's why I respect him. That's unusual for a politician," said childhood friend John Bryson.

The conservative ideals Cook believes in were challenged during his studies at the University of Utah in the 1960s. There, he was drawn to such liberal causes as the civil rights struggle.

Cook helped bring a controversial leader of that movement, anti-war activist Julian Bond, to the U. shortly after the Georgia Legislature refused to seat the newly elected black representative.

"That was my first real political speech, to introduce Bond," Cook recalled. "Here was a man who pressed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, fighting for equality . . . and I blew it. I said, `Here's James Bond.' The whole place broke out laughing."

Cook recovered from the gaffe and graduated from the U. in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in economics. Between his freshman and sophomore years, he served a two-year mission to Great Britain for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After graduation, Cook sorted through acceptances from a number of law and business schools and chose the prestigious Harvard graduate program in business administration.

And in the fall of 1969, he married his sister-in-law, Camille Sanders. The pair had gone to junior high school and high school together but did not know each other until they were introduced by his sister and her brother. The couple have five children, ranging in age from 4 to 17.

At Harvard, Cook was brought back into the conservative fold with a lesson that still guides his thinking: "The best way to help all people is through improving the economy."

He also took to heart the conservative principle that the best way to improve the economy is keeping government intervention at a minimum, a principle reflected in a campaign slogan used to promote both Cook and the tax initiatives, "Prosperity follows tax cuts."

Cook's gubernatorial campaign is built around his support for the three tax initiatives that he says would fuel a recovery of the state's sagging economy by cutting taxes and government.

Harvard degree in hand, Cook went to work for Arthur D. Little Co., a Massachusetts management consulting firm where the clients he dealt with included General Motors and U.S. Steel.

After three years, he decided he could make more money on his own and returned home to Utah, where he and his father started Cook Associates Inc., a manufacturing consulting firm.

Cook followed in the footsteps of his father, who had invented an explosive used in mining, by developing a patented slurry explosives delivery system. That product led to the creation of Cook Slurry Co., which Cook himself heads.

A prosperous man, Cook kicked off his political career in 1984 by running for the state school board on a platform of consolidating school districts. He lost, he said, because he was "naive on procedures, not on issues."

Cook was determined not to repeat such mistakes as using a 10-year-old voter list for a campaign mailing when he decided to run for mayor in 1985. Many political observers believed he went too far in the other direction.

Despite spending more than $500,000 _ including about $300,000 of his own money - on what was the state's most expensive mayoral campaign, Cook garnered less than 30 percent of the vote against Mayor Palmer DePaulis, who was then running for his first term.

"It wasn't just a loss. It was a blowout, a debacle, a political earthquake. He became Utah's living, breathing proof that you can't buy an election," one political analyst wrote shortly after the vote.

Cook winced then at the statement, although he conceded it was true. Today, he insists the race is not a sensitive subject, but there is an edge to his voice when he tells a reporter, "I've already said several times I made a mistake putting so much of my own money into it."

He campaigned better, spent less, won more votes, but still barely lost his third race a year later, this time a bid for a Salt Lake County Commission seat won by Democrat Dave Watson, who has since resigned.

A lifelong Republican, Cook entered the governor's race as an independent candidate amid what he termed "manipulation" by party leaders on behalf of Gov. Norm Bangerter. His backers are supporters of the tax initiatives spawned by Bangerter-backed tax increases.

Cook's move did not surprise Bryson, who has known him for more than 30 years and later worked for him before going into business for himself. "That's his nature. If he believes in something, he'll work for it. He doesn't care what toes he steps on."

Why is Cook running as an independent? "Because I can win," he said. "The ones saying it's impossible are still out there, but they're not as numerous. There are people saying now, `Cook can surprise us all and win this.' "

Even though the polls say otherwise, Cook is ever-confident that this time, he is arguing the side of an issue the voters will respond to just like his boyhood friends did during those neighborhood debates.

"People are seeing that the issue I've been harping on for years is important," he said. "It fell on deaf ears in others races. This year, the public is a lot more ready. In fact, they're almost demanding the issue."

If he doesn't spend the next four years in the governor's mansion, Cook said he will find other ways to advance the tax limitation movement. "This is a group that needs support and leadership in the future, and I'm going to help them," he said.

Tomorrow: Ted Wilson