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“Let’s face it. It’s not just the Democrats who’ve caused the problems most Americans are upset about right now,” said Mr. Lee. “Republicans certainly played a role in this, by which I mean the mission-creep that we’re seeing with the sprawling federal government.”

Mr. Bennett has a lifetime 83.6 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, but his critics say he’s still too moderate for Utah. The bailout vote still rankles; he’s shown flexibility on immigration reform; and he’s been known to work at times with Democrats when it comes to legislation.

His co-sponsor on the Healthy Americans Act is liberal Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. The bill, which would establish universal health coverage through private medical accounts run by the states, is likely to emerge as a major campaign issue, even though it remains stuck in committee.

“If you look at the spectrum of conservative senators, he’s not in the top 10, he’s not in the top 20, and some would say he’s not in the top 30. And yet Utah is one of the one or two most conservative states,” said Mr. Bridgewater. Republican senators like Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Jon Kyl of Arizona, he said, “are leading the charge for conservative principles, not Robert Bennett.”

Mr. Bennett chuckles when informed that he may be a closet moderate. “My colleagues here in the Senate are stupefied over this. They’re telling me, ‘Gee, you’re not conservative enough?’”

Working in Mr. Bennett’s favor is his near-universal name recognition in Utah and the low profile of all of his challengers. When the Jones poll asked voters which candidate they would support if the election were held today, 31 percent said Mr. Bennett and 35 percent were undecided. His rivals were all stuck in single digits.

The Republican newcomers are “very bright, very enthusiastic. They’re just not that well known,” said Mr. Jones. “At the end of the day, Bennett should still win, although not by the margins he’s had in the past.”

Look for Mr. Bennett’s age to become a factor. He turns 77 in September — Mr. Bridgewater refers to him as “almost 80” — while his rivals are each at least a quarter-century younger. With age comes experience, however, and Mr. Bennett is an old pro when it comes to Utah’s primary system.

A candidate must win 60 percent of the delegate vote at the state Republican convention May 8 to secure the party’s nomination. If no candidate hits 60 percent, the top two finishers face each other in a primary election. Mr. Bennett has already spent more than $500,000 reaching out to potential delegates, who will be chosen at caucus meetings in March.

He’s got a potential ace in the hole in the form of Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential candidate, a fellow Mormon and one of Utah’s most influential political figures. The Bennett campaign plans to unleash ads emphasizing Mr. Romney’s endorsement.

Mr. Bennett coasted to victory in 2004 — he didn’t even run any television spots — but he said he knows this year will be different.

“I recognize the anti-incumbent feeling is there, and I can’t rest on my laurels,” said Mr. Bennett. At the same time, he said, his foes can’t assume that anti-Washington sentiment will be enough to sweep them into office.

“As I watch this unfold, my opponents are in this echo chamber, and all they hear is voices saying, ‘We hate Washington; we hate Bob Bennett.’ But outside the echo chamber, there are a lot of people saying, ‘We really like Bob Bennett,’” he said. “The challenge is not to succumb to my own echo chamber.”