Independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook didn't learn until he arrived at the Spanish Fork Rotary Club luncheon Tuesday that he had been booked as a replacement for scheduled speaker Gov. Norm Bangerter, who had canceled.
Rather than being miffed at being second choice, Cook was clever enough to play off the club's "if-you-can't-get-one-candidate-get-the-other-one" flexibility - pointing out he needs a similar line of thinking among voters next November to get elected."The governor is saying a vote for Cook is a vote for Wilson," Cook told Rotarians. "I like to say a vote for Wilson is a vote for Bangerter. If there are going to be that many throwaway votes, the election really may become a free-for-all."
A free-for-all is exactly what Cook wants. He insists he can win the statehouse by capturing 35 percent of the vote. And while he admits his base of support comprises disgruntled Republicans, he says the defection of Ted Wilson supporters will put him over the top.
"I'm coming up in the polls, and Wilson's coming down," he said, unfolding his hoped-for election day scenario. "Wilson has high poll numbers, but his support above 35 percent is unstable.
"The governor has a solid 25 percent that will back him no matter what, but it'll be hard for him to build much more than that. We're all three going to converge in the thirties."
Spanish Fork is not a hotbed of state politics, but the local Rotary luncheons are developing a reputation as a forum where candidates are astutely questioned.
Last month in a similar meeting, a member asked Wilson what has become known in some political circles as The Question: How can a conservative Republican explain to his Republican friends an intention to vote for Wilson, a Democrat?
The same Rotarian asked Cook how a single-issue tax cut campaign without a natural base of party support can attract the votes needed to win an election, especially when Cook has no public-office experience and has lost the only two other political races he has run.
Cook is counting on his message - a permanent tax cut totaling $240 million that will stimulate the state's economy without adversely affecting education and services - to draw the votes. He bills himself an anti-establishment candidate.
"Nobody in the establishment likes what I'm saying," he said. "Nobody like what I'm saying, except the people. When I'm elected, the two parties will never again ignore the grassroots. A vote for me is a vote for everybody's Utah."
The adopted patron saint of the Cook campaign is Jim Longley, an independent who beat candidates from the two major parties when he ran for governor of Maine in 1974.
According to Cook, Longley drew 39 percent of the vote, after beginning his campaign at just 8 percent in the opinion polls and making his best pre-election showing at 19 percent on the Sunday before the election.
"That's what we're going to do," Cook said. "We started at 8 percent and we're growing. There are a lot of closet tax-cut supporters out there who don't say they're going to vote for me. But they will."