Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, struggling against anti-incumbency sentiment and strong challenges from more conservative GOP candidates, is running a disappointing third place in a survey of delegates to next month's state convention.
The poll results released Tuesday are the latest sign that Bennett is in serious danger of becoming the first incumbent U.S. senator to lose in the 2010 election — a scenario once unthinkable for the once-popular politician.
The poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune found just 16 percent of delegates wanted Bennett re-elected, lagging behind his top two challengers at 20 percent and 37 percent.
Bennett will be eliminated if he fails to win at least 40 percent of the 3,500 delegate votes at the state GOP's convention May 8. A statewide June 22 primary featuring the top two candidates would be needed if no single candidate ends up with 60 percent of the vote.
Attorney Mike Lee leads the field with 37 percent in the poll, and businessman Tim Bridgewater is in second place with 20 percent. Fifteen percent of respondents said they were undecided.
"Bennett has almost no shot of getting more votes at the convention than Bridgewater and Lee," said Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., which conducted the poll.
The poll surveyed 400 GOP delegates to the May 8 convention and was conducted from April 22 to April 25. It has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Bennett said polls his campaign is conducting show there is a "great deal of volatility" among the delegates as support changes from one candidate to the other. He is in the midst of an active effort to court delegates as he attends a series of local political gatherings.
"The only real conclusion we can come to is that the race is still very volatile and people are changing their minds," Bennett said.
At the convention, all but the top three candidates will be eliminated after the first round of voting. Based on the delegates' second choices, poll found Lee likely would prevail in a head-to-head convention contest against Bridgewater — 44 percent to 30 percent. But Lee would fall short of the 60 percent needed to clinch the GOP nomination, Coker said.
That would result in the two facing off in a June 22 primary. If Bennett manages to edge Bridgewater after the second round of voting and face off against Lee in the final round, Lee would get 51 percent and Bennett 18 percent. But, with nearly a third of the delegates undecided, Lee would have a chance to reach the 60 percent threshold and win the nomination outright — and Bennett would have a slim chance to survive to the primary.
Coker said Bennett's biggest liability is that delegates have a negative view of the senator: Just 28 percent see him favorably while 61 percent view him unfavorably.
By comparison, 71 percent of delegates give Bridgewater a favorable rating and 68 percent do so for Lee.
Lee said the latest survey reflects what he has seen in his own polling and in meeting with delegates. He said he is encouraged by the numbers, but "I'm taking absolutely nothing for granted. I'm going to continue working hard trying to reach every single delegate in the state."
Bridgewater said his campaign is building momentum. "We feel good about the position we're in heading into the last two weeks of the campaign," he said. "Right now it looks like it will be a primary between a businessman and a lawyer."
If knocked out at the convention, Bennett would be the first senator from Utah voted out of office before a general election since the early 1940s.
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