The Utah governor's race is now a real free-for-all. Merrill Cook jumped in Tuesday as an independent candidate.

Cook, a well-known Republican, said he decided to run as an independent because "I have a story to tell, and it can now only be told as independent, free of the manipulation of the Republican hierarchy."He joins Gov. Norm Bangerter, a Republican who is running for re-election; industrialist Jon Huntsman, a Republican who decided last week in a surprise move to challenge Bangerter for the GOP nomination; and Democrat Ted Wilson, who, it appears, will be unchallenged in his party.

Cook has run two unsuccessful races before a non-partisan Salt Lake City mayor's contest in 1985 and in 1986 as the GOP nominee in a Salt Lake County Commission race.

Tax-cutting, educational reform and helping the small businessman will be Cook's main themes. In an interview, Cook said he plans on talking about those and other issues until the November general election.

"I'm in, and I'm in for the whole race. I don't want to hurt any party or person, and I don't think that I will. I'm not a spoiler. But I'm convinced and I spent many sleepless nights thinking about this I'm convinced that without Merrill Cook in the governor's race the other candidates just won't address tax reform and tax cuts. They won't have to and they won't," he said.

Cook said he's talked "literally for hours on end" with Bangerter and Huntsman about the men's campaigns and plans for the future. While saying he respects both men, Cook said, "Without me in the race the little people won't get a tax cut, and I know that is the case."

Cook's main supporters are members of the tax protest movement. He planned to address a rally of tax protesters Tuesday evening in the Salt Lake County Complex. "If I don't run as an independent, these petitions don't have a chance" of being passed in the fall, he said.

He said he'll recruit supporters from the 60,000 Utahns who have already signed the petitions and from dissatisfied Republicans (Cook apparently has some GOP voter lists), independents and Democrats. "Independent-minded Utahns, and there are a lot of them, will listen to what I have to say," he believes.

The tax limitation leaders broke with Bangerter this past year after the governor who suggested $200-million in tax increases in December 1986 refused to support their tax-cutting initiative petitions. Tax protest leaders also refused to commit to Huntsman's campaign, arguing he originally was involved in an effort to defeat the petitions (Huntsman ultimately didn't agree to lead the anti-petition group). The tax protesters wanted Cook to run, and now he will.

Cook, a successful owner of an explosives company, spent $500,000 of his own money in the mayor's race, a move he recognizes as a political mistake. He said: "I'll keep my integrity in this governor's race. But I'll also be honest. Yes, I will put some of my own money into it, although it will be reasonable and I don't think it will be a majority of the money raised and spent. Jon (Huntsman, a wealthy man himself) may say he won't put any of his money in, but he will."

Cook said he expects he'll trail the other candidates in the polls (he does), mainly because his message won't get out for a while.

"The Bangerter-Huntsman race will be a real dogfight. That is where all the attention will be focused. Ted will even be lost in the dust for much of the time," Cook said.

"But after the Republican primary in September, in the seven weeks before the final election, that is when you will hear the Merrill Cook message. It will come loud and strong in (paid) TV and radio (ads), through press reports and other areas."

Cook said he will walk the state between now and September, meeting with thousands of Utahns and fund-raising along the way. He didn't know how much money he would raise or spend. "We will spend our money in the final seven weeks of the campaign, we will be competitive. We will have an impact. We can win this thing."