The incumbent sits in his congressional Capitol Hill office, little time to campaign, mulling heavy thoughts such as the impeachment of a president.

The challenger is back in Salt Lake City, holding a press conference, town meeting or other events once a week, antsy to get at her opponent.For Democrat Lily Eskelsen, after a year of mostly behind-the-scenes fund-raising, polling, white-paper drafting and neighborhood walking, the wait is over. It's time to make a splash in public.

For freshman Rep. Merrill Cook, it's time to "enjoy the benefits" of the incumbency, so often denied him during the past decade of office-seeking. Time to stay in Washington, D.C., and run for re-election by doing "the job the people elected me to do."

"Labor Day is over" and it's time to really campaign, says Eskelsen, who seeks any opportunity to compare herself with Cook.

"People forget that I announced for the 2nd (Congressional) District race a year ago. But now it's really time to start," said Eskelsen, a former Utah teacher of the year and former president of the Utah Education Association.

Even though Cook says he'll "have very little time" to campaign before Congress is set to adjourn around Oct. 10, he came home last weekend to officially open his campaign headquarters and take advantage of a photo op with former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, his honorary campaign chairman, and Katie Dixon, former Salt Lake County recorder and campaign chairwoman.

In campaigns gone by, Cook was always the out-of-office challenger.

He badgered his opponents to debate him, even showed up uninvited to a 1988 gubernatorial event and tried to debate then-GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter from the audience.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. And it fits real nice, thank you, Cook says.

"I'm eager to debate her," Cook said. And eight or so debates have been set up so far. "I won't be meeting her as much as I did with (1996 Democratic nominee) Rocky Anderson. But we were both here (in Salt Lake, not in Congress) and had time," Cook said.

For now, he's so busy with congressional business in September he can't make joint appearances. The House has even scheduled votes Friday and some Saturdays in its rush to approve various budget bills, he says.

So Eskelsen plows ahead without him.

Since Aug. 4, she has held a press conference, town meeting or other event each week, inviting the media along. This past week, she picked up endorsements of the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters, who praised her while slapping Cook's environmental voting record.

"A few weeks ago on CNN, Merrill Cook was named as one of the nine most vulnerable Republicans in the House this year," Eskelsen said. Quoting a Deseret News poll, she says Cook's support is still less than 50 percent and she's barely 10 percentage points behind.

She's raised more money than Cook and has more cash in her campaign war chest.

"It's not just me saying I can beat him. The cold hard numbers say it," Eskelsen said with a laugh.

Eskelsen has picked up her public exposure now "because it's campaign season, people are willing to take a look at me, politics is on their radar screens."

Over the next month or so, she seeks "free media" - reports on TV, the radio and in newspapers.

Both she and Cook are keeping their advertising money dry.

"When you start buying TV ads, that's when you really start spending money," Cook said. He anticipates Eskelsen will get into that final stage of the campaign before he does.

Eskelsen says she'll definitely run some radio and TV ads but also is waiting awhile to start. She and Cook declined to say when the first ads would hit the air.

Eskelsen fully expects some kind of outside attack ad campaign against her. She's a member of the National Education Association's executive board, and conservative groups have already said she could be vulnerable on stands taken by the national teacher's organization that don't set well in Utah.

Cook also expects some outside, independent help. But he mentions not right-wing groups who may bring up moral issues, but the National Association of Independent Businesses, Republicans for Environmental Protection and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"I will be talking a lot about what I've come here (to Congress) to do, totally revamp the federal tax system, support for the flat tax and responsible fiscal policies," Cook said. "You may see a national flat tax group come in to Utah" and run advertisements in his behalf.

Eskelsen says she'll be talking about bringing people together to find workable solutions.

Her emphasis will be on education, where she's worked all her life.

And crime, especially juvenile crime, must be dealt with. "If you don't take care of out-of-control kids they'll become out-of-control adults."

She also stresses the environment and Social Security, two issues "the Republicans in Congress have just ignored. We can avoid a crisis in Social Security if we do some smart things now."