If tears could be turned into votes, perhaps Ted Wilson would become governorin January - enough tears will be shed for his close loss but not enough votes were cast.

Gov. Norm Bangerter survived the impossible quest. He came back from 30 points down in the early polls, outlasted a brief intraparty challenge from a well-respected Republican that could have killed him and won a three-way race for a second term that just a month ago very few people thought he could.He ran a good campaign, yes, no doubt the best of his career. A little lucky? Sure, if you count joining the Republican Party, the clearly dominant party in Utah, luck.

But in an irony that rivals any in Utah political history, Bangerter dug himself a huge hole two years ago, only to later find that hole to be his salvation.

Consider this: If Bangerter, who was popular in the polls before his recommended $220 million tax increase in 1987, hadn't suggested that political misstep, he likely would have coasted to victory this year - a well-liked Republican incumbent winning again in the most Republican state in the nation.

But he did suggest that tax increase. And the tax protest revolt that sprung up directly because of that tax hike - the revolt that many believed would bury the governor - strangely saved him.

For that revolt led to the independent candidacy to Merrill Cook, who finished third in Tuesday's governor race. Cook was the conservative, the alternative for traditional Republican voters.

If not for Cook, where would the 20 percent of hard-core tax protest voters have gone? Bangerter believes they would have forgiven him and come back to the Republican ranks. Without Cook "this would have been a 60-40 race for me, I believe that," Bangerter said early Wednesday.

But it is just as easy seeing them voting for Wilson - maybe the first time in their lives they'd vote for a Democrat. At least with Wilson they wouldn't have had to cast their ballots for the man they believed betrayed the conservative, Republican cause.

"We all underestimated Merrill. He cost us. He really cost us," Wilson said.

For Wilson and his supporters, Tuesday was a nightmare. As the votes trickled in, and Bangerter's lead slowly grew, frustration surfaced among Wilsonaides.

Wilson and his wife, Kathy, withdrew for a few moments to a room in the Red Lion hotel to tend their new granddaughter and talk with a reporter. "If this state goes Republican this year, after all that's happened, well, I can't believe it," Mrs. Wilson said.

Wilson didn't concede defeat until 3 a.m. Wednesday, but his supporters knew what was happening. Most left the Red Lion shortly after midnight, when it became clear Bangerter was increasing his small lead. Wilson left about 1 a.m. for his Avenues home, where he telephoned Bangerter, who remained in his Little America Hotel suite, and conceded the race.

Bangerter and Wilson both admit to a genuine affection for each other.

"A great man has just called me," Bangerter told the few who stayed to hearhis acceptance speech, and then he choked with emotion. "Ted Wilson has conceded. This is a Republican state, but it is also a Democratic and independent state. We want to work with everyone, work together and get politics out of the way, get the job done. You who know me know that Norm Bangerter does not look back but forward. Join us, all of you, and we'll take this state forward."

Said Wilson in a telephone interview after his concession: "I'm deeply disappointed. It hurts a great deal. But I'm not the kind of guy who lets it fester or slow me down."

Wilson took a leave of absence from the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah to run for governor. "I'll be back at the Hinckley Institute on Monday. Life goes on."

He said he's proud of the race he ran. "It wasn't negative. We brought up a number of issues that I hope will become reality some day. I have no regrets."

The Democratic Party must rebuild now, Wilson said. "I think we can win a statewide race but not until the Reagan legacy ends. (George) Bush carried this state almost by as much as Reagan did, and that affected our race, I believe. You never say never to another race. But it's doubtful you'll ever see me run again."

Meanwhile, Cook blamed Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, for his loss, and said he and his supporters would be deciding in the coming months whether to form a new, independent political party in Utah.

"Jake Garn, very honestly, needs to wash his mouth out," Cook said. "He ought to be ashamed of them," he said of the Garn ads that urged voters not to vote for Cook but for Bangerter. "These are shameful ads." The ads, he said, may well have cost him the governor's race. "Those ads hit below the belt."

He said he regretted any contribution his candidacy made to Bangerter's re-election, but he said his candidacy hurt Wilson more than it did the Republican incumbent. He said he would be meeting with his supporters in the coming weeks and expects to make a decision by January.