Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Wilson dodged another bullet last weekend when, in the state GOP Convention, delegates decided not to give independent candidate Merrill Cook the opportunity to re-enter the Republican governor's race.
If Cook had gotten into the Republican convention, or into a GOP primary, he very well could have been eliminated by Gov. Norm Bangerter, who is seeking re-election. That would have left a Bangerter-Wilson match-up in the final race, not a Bangerter-Wilson-Cook ballot.While Wilson won't concede that Bangerter would have a better shot at him in just a two-way race, most believe that is indeed the case. Bangerter and his supporters clearly think so.
(Wilson dodged his first bullet last spring when Republican industrialist Jon Huntsman decided to get out of the GOP race. Huntsman, polls showed, would have been a stronger challenge to Wilson.)
The convention "was our chance to get rid of Cook once and for all," said one top Bangerter adviser.
But it wasn't to be.
Cook didn't come in person to the convention to promise to accept the decision of the delegates or the GOP primary. And he had to do that, said GOP leaders, in order to be welcomed back into the party.
Instead, the pro-Cook delegates lost their bid to place Cook's name in nomination. Cook says he wouldn't have accepted the invitation anyway, that he would have always stayed an independent.
But if the delegates had offered him a primary with Bangerter, it may have been too tantalizing for Cook to pass up. If he really felt he had a shot at knocking Bangerter off in such a primary election, he might have taken the bait.
One thing is clear after the GOP convention, the enmity between the Bangerter and Cook camps has widened - Cook is now speaking out against Sens. Orrin Hatch and Jake Garn in addition to his criticisms of the governor.
The convention was also an example of how key moments in a person's political career can come and go quickly.
Within minutes at the convention, I'm told by Republican insiders, Bangerter wavered on fighting Cook's entry into the convention or inviting him in.
While some around him, including Garn and Hatch, urged Bangerter to let Cook into the convention - "so we could kick his rear," as one Bangerter aide put it - Bangerter resisted.
The three huddled with advisers offstage at the Cottonwood High School auditorium, arguing. Richard Richards, who was addressing the convention, was even passed a note that asked him to keep talking so some kind of decision could be reached behind the curtain.
Bangerter was upset at Cook's game. He even threatened that if the delegates gave Cook 30 percent of their vote, enough to get Cook into a primary against Bangerter, he'd quit - and let the GOP run Cook for governor.
But that was anger and frustration speaking. Bangerter mellowed quickly, thought about the opportunity, and decided that even if he couldn't eliminate Cook in the convention - and he was told he could - then he would surely beat Cook in a primary. And getting Cook out of the race was the best chance Bangerter had against Wilson. Bangerter agreed. And Garn, Hatch and other GOP leaders walked onto the stage to make Cook the offer. But Cook wouldn't accept it, as it turned out.
Bangerter's concern over Cook's independent candidacy is justified. The latest Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted for the Deseret New and KSL-TV shows that Wilson leads Bangerter 49-30 percent. Cook trails with 11 percent of the vote. But that 11 percent is critical.
Even though 42 percent of Utahns polled say they're Republicans, Wilson is drawing so many independents and Republicans away from Bangerter, the governor can't afford to lose any votes to Cook. Jones found that of those voting for Cook, 12 percent are Republicans while only 6 percent are Democrats. So Cook draws twice as many votes away from Bangerter as from Wilson. Wilson can afford that drain, leading as he does. Bangerter can't.
So at the convention, the door opened briefly for Bangerter. He was smart enough to let Cook in, if Cook promised to give up his independent candidacy. But Cook was smart enough not to enter.
In the end, the convention's antics were only embarrassing for Republicans. Cook believes he lost nothing because of what happened. But if he had ever harbored the hope that someday, somehow he would be forgiven by party loyalists for bolting and running an independent campaign, that may have vanished June 11. Forever.