You've known Merrill Cook the candidate, and the candidate and the candidate.

Six times local voters have seen Cook's name on the ballot as a challenger.Now, for the first time in a decade of running for this or that office or being the lead spokesman for a citizen initiative, Cook comes before you as an incumbent.

And the decision for 2nd District residents is not whether they know Cook - his name identification runs at 91 percent of residents - it's whether they like the job he's doing.

Maybe, for some, it's whether they are even a bit surprised at the job he's doing.

Cook, the outsider, the quitter-of-the-GOP, the tax-revolter, the big man with big ideas, is now the Republican insider.

Cook doesn't bash light rail, one of his favorite pastimes before. He writes newsletters about how he's delivered millions of federal dollars to Utah for transportation, I-15 and light rail.

He doesn't thump GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt - the man who beat him in the 1992 governor's race - as ineffective or backward on vital issues. He praises Leavitt. And the governor stands before the State Republican Convention saying Cook has done a fine job in Congress and should be re-elected.

Is this some kind of great political transformation?

Cook says no, that he's stayed true to his basic beliefs. He says he's ruffled more than a few feathers in Washington and Salt Lake over what he terms his independent stands and resistance to the status quo.

"I still stand for the same things. I still argue for them. The difference, I guess, is that now I'm back here (in the GOP-controlled) House with people who feel the same way as I do about tax reform and giving locals control over how they spend federal transportation dollars. It's just great not standing alone."

Cook has surprised more than a few GOP watchers.

They wondered whether Cook would self-destruct once in office, that he could no longer attack, but had to compromise and work with others.

A number really wondered how Cook would fit in, especially after, in forming his core staff, he hired a press secretary and a chief of staff known for their sharp edges and combative styles.

But Cook's first year-and-a-half in office has not been marred by public faux pas, stumbles and pratfalls. Only a few times has Cook suffered foot-in-mouth disease.

Once, for example, he told the Deseret News editorial board that he didn't expect House Speaker Newt Gingrich to be re-elected speaker after the 1998 elections returned Republicans to a House majority.

Gingrich was not amused. Cook then said he fully supported Gingrich for another speaker term. Gingrich visited Utah soon thereafter on a tour of Western concerns, and he and Cook appeared friendly. And Cook said later he learned a valuable lesson. "Actually, the speaker and I became even closer after that (incident)."

Cook says his disagreements with Leavitt and GOP state leaders were never personal. And he's pleased all rally around him now.

In the 1996 state GOP convention Cook snuck into the primary with only 32 percent of the delegate vote. Face it, he says now, most of the GOP insider-delegates didn't want him in office. But he's been mending fences ever since.

"I've attended all but one or two meetings of the Salt Lake County and state party central committees. I knew I had to get these delegates on my side. I've listened and learned and (party leaders) say no one can remember a congressman whose tried harder."

Some former allies are disappointed, however. A core of light-rail opponents see Cook as a turncoat. "There have been people who voiced that" - that Cook didn't fight light rail in office as before.

But Cook says funding for the north-south light rail was approved in June 1996, before his election. "Some people are still upset I didn't throw my body down in front of the construction, tear up the rails after they were laid. I've said all along I want to get as much money for Utah and the 2nd District for all kinds of transportation as I can, within the budget agreements.

"My job is to get the money. It's the locals' job to decide how to spend it."

One reason he's getting along back in Congress - not butting heads - is because there Republicans want to cut spending and trim government. When he was criticizing Utah Republican incumbent governors and legislators in the late 1980s "they were raising taxes" and government was growing. "We're all on the same wave length" back in D.C., said Cook.

"I'm still a pretty feisty guy," says Cook. "Obviously, I've learned a lot" over the past 18 months. "I've gained a lot of knowledge." But he also came into office well-schooled in tax reform and budget-cutting - having argued them in years of campaigns. "I'm growing politically and in the ability to present my ideas. Politically, I'm gaining more allies than I had eight or 10 years ago.

"For 10 years, I fought so hard to get the opportunity to serve. I think I appreciate this office more than most. I love it more than I ever thought I would.."