U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, facing a wave of conservative opposition as he seeks a fourth term, squared off with seven GOP challengers in a debate Friday as candidates tried to win over delegates who meet next month to choose the party's nomination.
Most of the resistance to Bennett has centered around his support for the federal bailout of the financial industry. But Bennett's opponents have also criticized him for his unwavering defense of earmarks, which send taxpayer dollars to projects in lawmakers' districts outside the competitive process required for other federal spending.
Bennett, considered a moderate in Utah, told about 130 delegates and more than 100 others at Utah Valley University that eliminating earmarks wouldn't reduce the deficit by one cent. That would only give President Barack Obama, a Democrat, more power to decide which projects get funded, he said.
Bennett added that his earmark requests have always been transparent.
"I've not done any of this backroom thing that people are talking about," he said.
Attorney Mike Lee, thought to be one of Bennett's most credible challengers, called for a one-year moratorium on earmarks. He also subtly criticized the senator, saying the recently passed health care bill is unconstitutional because it includes a mandate to buy insurance.
Bennett introduced a bill during the health care debate that also would've required people to buy insurance.
"This is wrong," Lee said. "They don't have the power to do that. I will fight every single day I serve you as your U.S. senator to get this monstrosity repealed."
During his introductory remarks, Bennett took a shot at Lee, saying the nation's capital already has too many lawyers.
"This is serious business and it's not a question of choosing who's going to be the prom queen," Bennett said at the end of the debate in another dig at Lee, who several candidates noted was the most articulate among them.
But it was difficult to distinguish Bennett from the other candidates on most issues. There was scant mention of Bennett's record by his opponents, in part because it could be construed as negative campaigning — typically frowned upon by Utah delegates.
While the venue for Friday's debate was relatively small, it's audience was significant.
About 3,500 delegates to the May 8 state convention will choose the party's nominee. If no candidate wins 60 percent of delegate votes during the final round of voting, then the top two candidates are placed on the June primary ballot.
Delegates were chosen at neighborhood caucuses in March, but weren't pledged to any specific candidate, making it difficult to gauge any one candidate's chances.
Businessman Tim Bridgewater is one of the most well-funded candidates after loaning himself more than $275,000, but fundraising means little at conventions, where candidates can campaign one-on-one with delegates.
Bennett's opponents hope to defeat him at the state convention, but the senator believes he'll qualify for the primary. His odds of winning the nomination greatly improve if that happens, since Bennett has more money to spend than all his opponents combined and primary voters tend to be more moderate than delegates.
In highly conservative Utah, the Republican nominee is virtually assured victory in November. A Democrat hasn't been elected to a U.S. Senate seat in Utah since 1970.
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