U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett said Friday his seniority allows him to bring more change in Washington than any of his seven GOP opponents, using the final debate before Utah Republicans narrow the field to try to stave off criticism he's no longer conservative enough to represent them.
Bennet's bid for a fourth term is at stake as about 3,500 Republican delegates gather Saturday to choose the party's nominee — or two candidates to face off in a June primary. Bennett is in serious danger of being defeated at the convention, with recent delegate surveys showing him in third place behind attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater.
Bennett will need at least 40 percent of delegate votes to force one of his opponents into a primary. Any candidate who gets 60 percent of delegate votes at the convention wins the nomination outright, avoiding a primary altogether.
Bennett debated Lee, Bridgewater and conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar Friday on KNRS radio.
"Frankly, I believe I would be more of a change agent than any of my opponents here. I would have more influence in turning the ship of state than any of them would," Bennett said. "This is not a speed boat that you turn in a minute. This is an ocean liner that's going strongly in one direction and it needs the kind of thoughtful approach to getting it done that I believe I can bring to it."
Bennett has primarily come under attack for voting for a massive financial bailout, co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill mandating health insurance coverage and for aggressively seeking earmarks for Utah.
Bennett contends his opponents are filled with slogans, but have no practical solutions.
Lee disputes that notion, frequently saying he believes in a balanced budget amendment and using the Constitution as a guide to determine what federal programs should be in place.
"We all need to remember the constitution provides real, practical solutions. It's not just sound bites, it's not just talking points, it is a document that sets in motion ancient principles, wise principles, inspired principles, that can protect us from an overreaching government," he said.
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