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Republicans in Utah direct anger at former party favorite Bennett

By Amy Gardner
Saturday, May 1, 2010; A01

SALT LAKE CITY -- Delivering the opening prayer of the Beaver County Republican Convention recently, cattle rancher Gilbert Yardley prayed for Utah to elect "honest" people to Congress -- anybody to replace "the bunch we have in there now."

Sen. Robert F. Bennett was in the room, hoping to persuade state delegates to nominate him at the May 8 GOP convention. A friend seated next to Bennett leaned in to whisper the obvious: "I don't think he's one of yours."

It's no surprise that anger at Washington and Congress is coursing through Republican circles, much of it driven by "tea party" activists. What took party leaders by surprise is that the anger here is directed not at President Obama, but squarely at Bennett. With a flurry of state primaries scheduled in the coming weeks, defeating Bennett could become a rallying point for anti-incumbent fervor elsewhere.

"You've been there a while, you haven't fixed it," Garn McMullin, a small-business owner angry about the spiraling costs of Social Security, said to Bennett at the Salt Lake County convention last weekend. "Convince me as a delegate if it hasn't happened yet, why I should believe you'll make it happen now."

Bennett readily admits that he is in deep trouble. By all accounts, his best hope is to emerge from the state convention in second place among eight candidates. If he draws more than 40 percent of delegate votes, he and the winner will face off in a June primary. Bennett's campaign cash and name then could give him an advantage with the less intense electorate of a primary.

But first Bennett has to get that 40 percent. In a dimly lighted high school auditorium in suburban Provo on Saturday, about 1,000 Republicans cheered wildly when candidate Mike Lee, the son of a former president of Brigham Young University, asked whether they thought Congress was broken.

They hooted with approval when another candidate, marketing executive Cherilyn Eagar, called for the abolition of the departments of education and energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. And they went nuts when a third challenger, entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater, threw this red meat their way: "There's been a lot of talk about term limits. I'm working on a term limit for Senator Bennett right now!"

According to a poll published Sunday by local news outlets, 41 percent of convention delegates say they will not vote for Bennett; Lee holds the lead by a wide margin.

Unpopular decisions

Bennett's detractors point to his support for then-President George W. Bush's immigration amnesty proposal and the financial bailouts of banks and auto companies, as well as Bennett's authorship, with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), of a health-care proposal that included an individual mandate. Critics are also upset with Bennett for having pledged, during his first campaign in 1992, to serve only two terms (he is seeking his fourth).

"The whole reason I started the Tea Party of Utah was because of Bob Bennett," said David Kirkham of Provo, a convention delegate who said he is torn between voting for Lee or Bridgewater.

Kirkham's group, and the tea-party-affiliated Utah Rising and 9.12 movements, have been particularly active in opposing Bennett. All seven of his opponents are courting these groups heavily.

"There's a lot of frustration among Republicans who feel that the party lost the moral high ground on fiscal issues during the Bush years," said Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R), who is officially neutral in the race. "He gets the broad brush because he was there. This is a perfect storm against him that's kind of unique to our times."

Bennett has grown so accustomed to the vitriol of the campaign that he hardly flinches as he listens, county convention after county convention, to opponents and other critics take aim and fire.

At age 76 and 6 feet 6 inches tall, he towers over his constituents as he speaks about his efforts to curtail spending on such entitlement programs as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He fiercely defends his support for the bailouts.

'Slogans, not solutions'

"If the Republicans seize power as part of the 2010 elections and we don't have solutions, the American people will turn on us with the same vigor they turned on the Democrats," he said. "And I'm convinced that the movement working against me is a movement of slogans, not solutions."

Bennett sells his incumbency as crucial influence for Utah in Washington, something that would be lost if a newcomer replaced him. But he has a distant personal style ("Bob is not a hugger," one friend said), and he struggles when he disagrees with the voters he is so desperately courting.

When one Salt Lake constituent, worried about the rising national debt, said, "Our kids are just going to get splattered," Bennett replied quite firmly: "Well, no. We can fix this, if we do it right." The delegate walked away, unconvinced.

Bennett relies heavily on his knowledge of policy, which he views as the reason he should be returned to Washington. But it doesn't make for good sound bites.

Whereas supporters crowd around Lee and cluck approvingly while he talks about defending the Constitution and repealing the "grave monstrosity" of a health-care overhaul, listeners are often silent (and look a little bit lulled) when they stop to hear Bennett.

At the Utah County convention last Saturday, Bennett spent more than 10 minutes explaining the dispute between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over whether the Constitution allowed for the formation of a national bank.

The point: "If the people who wrote it can have disagreements over what it means, don't demonize people 200 years later for disagreeing over what it means." But it wasn't enough to sway his listeners.

"I don't think I'll vote for him," said John Loveland, 42, a National Guardsman from Provo. "He's good on national defense, he's good on the wars. But it's time for a change."

Bennett sounded as close as he gets to exasperated when he calmly marveled to a constituent at the Salt Lake convention about why he is the target of this election cycle's anger and upset. In 2004, no one opposed him for the Republican nomination, and his general election campaign was so assured that he didn't spend a penny on television. In 2006, he noted, he earned a 93 percent approval rating among Republican primary voters.

A true Republican?

"Now, I'm not a true Republican because I don't go on Fox and CNN and scream," he said.

Still, it remains unclear how prevalent the anger is -- or whether those who are mad simply did a better job storming the convention process. Adding to Bennett's frustration is the involvement of outside groups. The anti-tax group Club for Growth began running television ads against him last month. Jim Gilchrist, leader of the California-based Minuteman Project, has endorsed one of the challengers, Bridgewater.

Bennett, needless to say, has a national network of his own. Mitt Romney, who won the 2008 Republican presidential primary in Utah with an astonishing 89 percent of the vote, will introduce Bennett at the May 8 convention. That appearance is sure to give the incumbent a boost, and if Bennett should survive to a primary, Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and former Utah governor Mike Leavitt are likely to pitch in.

Still, it's notable that Bennett hasn't asked all of them to stump for him in advance of the state convention. That's how unclear it is that these "establishment" figures would even help.

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