No matter how you cut it, running an independent campaign for governor is a tough haul. Merrill Cook is finding that out.

"I've been treated fairly, overall, by the press and by the public. They take me seriously. It is the other candidates, especially Gov. (Norm) Bangerter, that are of the most concern," Cook said.Whether the campaign advisers of Bangerter, a Republican, or Ted Wilson, a Democrat, want to admit it or not, Cook may well hold the key to the governor's race this year.

Cook believes he can and will win the race. "My message will come across strong and clear in the end." Cook is running $12,000 worth of radio advertisements now, will run more radio this summer and plans to hand-deliver 200,000 tabloids - using tax limitation petition carriers - to Utah households this summer. He also plans to run TV ads the last four weeks of the campaign.

But if he falls short of victory, the number of votes he pulls from Bangerter and Wilson may well determine whether the governor has another four years or whether Utah returns to a Democratic administration.

So the question is, how will Bangerter and Wilson deal with the Cook candidacy?

"We are going to tell people over and over again that a vote for Merrill Cook is a vote for Ted Wilson. Because it is," said Dave Buhler, Bangerter's campaign manager. "Only Bangerter or Wilson will be elected governor. That's reality. The only role of Cook in this campaign is a spoiler, and people will realize that."

Since Wilson leads Bangerter by 19 points in the latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, anyone who chooses Cook over the governor is just helping Wilson, Buhler and other GOP strategists figure. The poll shows Wilson at 49 percent, Bangerter at 30 percent and Cook at 11 percent.

Part of wooing Republicans and independents away from the Cook camp is how you treat the independent candidate. Buhler makes it clear that Bangerter doesn't want to give Cook any credibility, whether his position in the polls deserves it or not.

Take the proposed gubernatorial debates: "It is our position, and our preference, that we debate Wilson alone," said Buhler. No Cook? "If the sponsor of the debate wants Merrill there, and we want to get at Wilson, we won't decline the debate invitation. But since the race is really between Bangerter and Wilson - and it is - why have anyone else there?"

Buhler said the governor won't debate Cook alone, period. "If Wilson doesn't come, the governor isn't interested."

Wilson is a bit more generous. "I have no preconditions. If Merrill is at the debates, that's fine by me. It is really up to the sponsors. If Merrill shows up and the governor doesn't, fine. I'll debate Merrill alone."

The debates are sticky points for Wilson and Bangerter. For his part, Wilson really doesn't want debates until after Labor Day, Sept. 5. "We have the Farm Bureau debate in July, but that is probably the only debate we'll do in July and August. People just aren't interested in politics in the summer. We'll do maybe eight or 10 debates, all told," Wilson said.

The governor is in a different spot. He wants to debate Wilson - a lot - maybe 20-25 times if Wilson agrees. But Bangerter doesn't want to debate Cook. How do you criticize one candidate for not debating while side-stepping debates with a third candidate?

Cook is clearly angry about how Bangerter treats his candidacy. "Ninety percent of the problems I'm having are with the Bangerter camp. And that's because the governor is scared stiff, just scared stiff, of the tax and economic development message I bring. He has lost all sense of fair play. He is using the power of the governorship to pressure people who want to sponsor the debates not to invite me. I'm sorry to say this, but it's clear he will do anything to get re-elected. No matter what," Cook said.

Cook further claims that Bangerter's campaign will use voter identification lists compiled by Sen. Orrin Hatch's campaign to find GOP and independent voters who favor Cook and go after them.

Buhler said no decision has yet been made whether to go after Cook voters. Public opinion polls show that twice as many Republicans favor Cook as do Democrats. "We're going after all Republicans of course. We have to bring some of them home (a number say they plan to vote for Wilson this year). But some of this (campaign) strategy is like making sausage: it's better if you don't know how it's done, you feel better."

Responds Cook: "Hatch has $2 million and doesn't have a tough race. I know he'll use a lot of that money helping Bangerter defeat me."

Bud Scruggs, Hatch's campaign manager, said Cook is just plain wrong about the voter lists. "We've contracted with a private, commercial firm to compile our lists. By contract, we can't share that information with anyone, not Bangerter, not the Republican Party." Scruggs adds, however, that the Bangerter campaign or party could buy those lists from the private firm.

Wilson said he's not going after any Cook voters, and probably won't go after any Bangerter voters. "The people who support Cook are the tax protesters. Hey, they wouldn't vote for me if I gave them a free vacation in Hawaii."

But Wilson isn't counting on Cook to help him beat Bangerter. "Merrill is too much an unknown factor. Who does he really hurt? What will he do? I've already got the anybody-but-Bangerter vote. I'm working to identify the support I have and convince the undecideds that I can be governor and represent them," Wilson said.