Sen. Bob Bennett and Reps. Jim Hansen and Chris Cannon carry huge leads over their 1998 election opponents going into the political dog days of summer.

But freshman Rep. Merrill Cook still has a battle ahead against Democratic challenger Lily Eskelsen, a new Deseret News poll shows.Pollster Dan Jones & Associates found Bennett well ahead of Democrat Scott Leckman, Hansen with a large lead over Steve Beierlein and Cannon with an ever larger lead over minor-party opponents.

This month's poll of registered voters shows Cook with a lead of 12 percentage points over Eskelsen, a former Utah Teacher of the Year and former president of the Utah Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

In April, Jones found a 10-point lead for Cook in a poll of 2nd District residents. The difference between then and now, says Jones, is the polls' margin of error and the fact the June poll is of registered voters - who tend to be slightly more Republican.

The Cook-Eskelsen race always has been billed as the closest this year. And the two Deseret News polls bear that out.

While all three Utah U.S. House districts are considered Republican in nature, the 2nd District - fully enclosed in Salt Lake County - is where Democrats make their strongest showing.

Moderates of both parties and political independents make up the bulk of 2nd District voters.

Jones found that 76 percent of those who say they're Republicans support Cook, while only 7 percent of Republicans like Eskelsen. On the other hand, 76 percent of Democrats say they're for Eskelsen, while only 9 percent of Democrats like Cook.

Among independents, 37 percent say they like Eskelsen and 36 percent say they'd vote for Cook if the general election were today.

Cook's 18 months in office have been a bit of a surprise to some Republicans, as well as Democrats.

Privately, GOP leaders say they're satisfied with freshman Cook's efforts. He's stayed out of trouble - not had many foot-in-mouth problems as they feared when he won in 1996. He's pushed transportation issues and helped get Utah its largest share ever of federal road money.

While Cook was a harsh critic of Utah Transit Authority's light-rail mass-transit project when he ran twice as an independent for governor and then for the 2nd District, he's modified his stand now - saying he can't stop it, and if it must go forward, at least the federal government should pick up a fair share of cost.

Eskelsen and the Democrats, however, see plenty to fault Cook on.

Historically, the best time to defeat a House incumbent - never an easy job - is after the first term. Some Democrats say now is the time to get Cook, thus giving Eskelsen time to solidify her base before the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature redraws 2nd District boundaries after the 2000 census.

- Bennett, who is running for his second six-year term and says he only wants to serve two terms in the U.S. Senate, is way ahead of Leckman. The 44 percentage point lead will be tough for the general surgeon to overcome.

- Likewise, Hansen holds a large lead over financial consultant Beierlein, the Democrat in the 1st Congressional District. However, if history holds up, Hansen's 46-point lead could well drop as Election Day nears.

While Hansen has won his elections with some big majorities, he's also had some closer races over his 18-year tenure.

- Cannon has no worries. No Democrat filed in the 3rd Congressional District this year. After his primary win Tuesday, Cannon now faces Libertarian Kitty Burton and Independent American Will Christensen. Jones found that 60 percent of 3rd District registered voters would cast a ballot for Cannon if the general election were held today.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Deseret News poll

If the general election were held today, for whom would you vote?

U.S. SENATE

Bob Bennett (R) 62%

Scott Leckman (D) 18%

Gary Van Horn (IA) 5%

Don't know 16%

Sample size: 1,219. Margin of error of +/-2.7 percent.

1ST CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

Jim Hansen (R) 64%

Steve Beierlein (D) 18%

Gerard Arthus (L) 4%

Don't know 14%

1st District sample size: 313. Margin of error of +/-5.5 percent.

2ND CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

Merrill Cook (R) 46%

Lily Eskelsen (D) 34%

Ken Larsen (IA) 2%

Robert Lesh (NL) 1%

Arly Pedersen (IA) 1%

Briam Swim (L) 1%

Don't know 15%

2st District sample size: 504. Margin of error of +/-4.0 percent.

3RD CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

Chris Cannon (R) 60%

Will Christensen (IA) 9%

Kitty Burton (L) 5%

Don't know 26%

3rd District sample size: 402. Margin of error of +/-5.0 percent.

Poll of registered voters conducted June 13-19 by Dan Jones & Associates, an independent polling firm whose clients include other organizations and sometimes political parties and candidates. Among his clients are Bob Bennett, Merrill Cook, Jim Hansen and Chris Cannon.

Copyright 1998 Deseret News.