Three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett advanced to a second round of balloting at the Utah GOP state convention Saturday, but the embattled senator's political career remained in danger of ending later in the day.
Bennett came in third out of eight candidates in the first round of balloting of the roughly 3,500 delegates, trailing attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater. Bennett got 885 votes, behind Lee and Bridgewater, who had 982 votes and 917 votes respectively.
A second round of balloting to narrow the field to two candidates began Saturday afternoon after each of the three remaining candidates made a one-minute speech. Delegates are free to change who they vote for in each round as the field is reduced to two candidates for the final round.
If neither of the final two gets 60 percent of the vote, they will face off in a June 22 primary.
"Don't take a chance on a newcomer," Bennett said in his brief speech to the degates before the second round of voting began. "There's too much at stake."
Bennett could become the first sitting U.S. senator to be voted out office this year amid a growing conservative movement that's insists on cutting taxes, federal spending and the reach of government.
It's a position being heard elsewhere in the country as some Republicans shun moderate candidates in favor of those backed by tea party activists, such as with Senate races in Arizona, Kentucky and New Hampshire.
In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist decided to run for Senate as an independent rather than face an almost certain primary defeat at the hands of tea party favorite Marco Rubio, Florida's former state House speaker.
His seven Republican rivals contend he no longer has the credentials to represent "ultraconservative" Utah.
Lee, 38, and Bridgewater, 49, have campaigned largely by saying they're better suited to rein in government spending than Bennett.
"I will fight every day as your U.S. senator for limited government, to end the cradle-to-grave entitlement mentality, for a balanced budget, to protect our flag, our borders and our national security and for bills that can be read before they receive a final vote in congress," Lee said in his convention speech.
The opposition to Bennett is specific, and can't be chalked up solely to a general anti-incumbency fervor. Neither of Utah's two Republican congressmen are at risk of losing their seats, and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert doesn't have any serious challengers.
Bennett is under fire for voting to bail out Wall Street, co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill mandating health insurance coverage and for aggressively pursuing earmarks.
Bennett tried to reassure delegates he is a fiscal conservative.
"You want to get deficits under control. I have authored bills to rein in the entitlement spending that now makes up two-thirds of the federal budget," Bennett said. "I've already voted for a balanced budget amendment three times and I will again while making certain that it won't be turned into a tax increase for Democrats. Our tax burden is already too high."
Some delegates, who tend to be more conservative than other Utah Republicans, are also upset he's still in office after initially promising to only serve two terms when first elected in 1992.
Bennett's best hope for survival was to get more than 40 percent of the delegates' votes and force one of his opponents into the June primary. To help accomplish that, he enlisted the help of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Romney ran the 2002 Winter Olympics here, is a Mormon like Bennett and most of the delegates and is wildly popular in Utah, where he won 90 percent of the presidential primary vote in 2008.
Romney introduced Bennett, 76, on Saturday — to a mix of cheers and boos.
"Today, he faces an uphill battle at this convention," Romney acknowledged in his speech. "Some may disagree with a handful of his votes or simply want a new face. But with the sweep and arrogance of the liberal onslaught today in Washington, we need Bob Bennett's skill, and intellect and loyalty."
Bennett has spent recent weeks in town-hall style meetings reminding delegates that his seniority is valuable to Utah, that his health care plan differed significantly from the one Democrats approved and that it was Utah businesses who said they would go bankrupt and lay people off without the financial bailout.
Other GOP candidates will watch Saturday's results closely, looking to see if its an indicator of things to come.
In Arizona, Sen. John McCain is in a tough primary fight against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a conservative talk-radio host. In Kentucky, Rand Paul, the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is gaining momentum in his challenge against the GOP establishment's pick of Secretary of State Trey Grayson to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning.
In New Hampshire, former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte is battling three Republican challengers to fill the seat being vacated by Republican Judd Gregg.
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