- The Washington Times - Friday, April 23, 2010

Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett is running hard for re-election, but the three-term Republican may also be running out of time.

Utah’s Republican convention is May 8, and by most accounts Mr. Bennett trails at least one and perhaps two of his seven GOP challengers. Not among the voters at large - he’s way ahead there - but among the 3,500 delegates who will decide the party’s Senate candidate.

A wide-ranging political survey conducted by the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, set for release Friday, is not expected to contain much good news for the Bennett campaign.

“Utah’s election system is pretty unique. Bennett is the likely choice of most voters, but with our convention system, he’s in trouble,” said Hinckley Director Kirk Jowers. “At the moment, it’s a narrow gate for Sen. Bennett to make it onto the primary ballot.”

Under Utah’s election rules, party delegates select the nominee at a one-day convention. All eight candidates appear on the first ballot; the top three make it to the second ballot, and the surviving top two candidates compete on the third and final ballot.

The candidate receiving at least 60 percent of the delegate vote wins the nomination. If no candidate receives 60 percent, then the two leading contenders will square off in a June primary election.

A Rasmussen Reports survey released April 15 found Mr. Bennett ahead of his closest rival by a margin of more than 2 to 1 among Utah voters, but that won’t help him at the convention. The Hinckley survey was conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV.

“The delegate crowd is a much tougher crowd than the rest of the state,” said Mr. Jowers. “People who attend are more radical, more libertarian and more distrustful of Washington, D.C.”

As a result, incumbency can be more of a curse than a blessing. For example, former Republican Gov. Olene Walker didn’t make it onto the primary ballot at the 2004 convention even though she enjoyed consistently high approval ratings.

Mr. Bennett has campaigned aggressively, moving to distance himself from Washington by touting his credentials as a businessman before entering politics. Still, he’s losing straw polls to his two main challengers, attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater. His other opponents include former Rep. Merrill Cook and conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar.

Mr. Bennett has previously acknowledged the primary would be difficult, telling The Washington Times in January that he was being caught up in a general anti-incumbent wave ahead of the midterm elections. He also rejected claims by some conservative activists that he was too moderate and cited his conservative voting record.

The leading Democrat is businessman Sam Granato, but the winner of the GOP nomination is expected to coast to victory in November in the heavily Republican state.

Then again, incumbency has its advantages. Having spent nearly 18 years in the Senate, Mr. Bennett knows a thing or two about fundraising and rounding up high-profile endorsements. He’s planning to play his trump card by having former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, perhaps the most popular political figure in Utah, introduce him at the convention.

Mr. Bennett has raised $3.5 million and spent $2.5 million, making him the only candidate to reach seven figures. At the same time, his fundraising advantage has been blunted by the Club for Growth, the influential conservative activist group, which has invested $134,000 in advertising and phone banks to block his re-election.

The Bennett campaign counterpunched one rival last week with a television ad targeting Mr. Lee on national security and accusing him of not supporting the global war on terror.

“He demeans our soldiers’ service as nothing more than ‘Meals on Wheels,’ ” says the ad.

Dan Hauser, Mr. Lee’s deputy campaign manager, said the Bennett campaign had taken Mr. Lee’s comments out of context. Mr. Lee favors using the U.S. forces to defeat the enemy and secure the area, he said, but not to stick around for what amounts to humanitarian aid missions.

Mr. Hauser traces Mr. Bennett’s difficulties to his support for big government programs, such as immigration reform, increasing the debt limit, and the 2008 Wall Street bailout package. Mr. Bennett has also been criticized for teaming with liberal Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon on a health care reform alternative that requires people to buy health insurance.

“You’re talking about the reddest state in the country, so you’re talking about people actively engaged in conservative politics who want someone who stands for limited government,” said Mr. Hauser. “Someone who believes in a limited role for government would have never voted that way.”

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