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Utah Republican convention voting under way

Brock Vergakis

Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett made a last-minute plea to delegates at the Utah's GOP state convention Saturday, asking them to return him to Washington for a fourth term and not to take out their anger with the federal government on him.

Bennett is in danger of becoming the first incumbent U.S. senator to be voted out office this year amid a growing conservative movement that's calling for unadulterated Republican credentials among its candidates.

His seven Republican rivals contend he no longer has the credentials to represent "ultraconservative" Utah.

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.

Recent delegate surveys before the convention showed Bennett in third place behind attorney Mike Lee, 38, and businessman Tim Bridgewater, 49, who say they're better suited to reign in government spending.

The opposition to Bennett is specific, and can't be chalked up 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 is to get more than 40 percent of the delegates' votes and force one of his opponents into a June 22 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 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."

All but the top three candidates will be eliminated after the first of three rounds of voting, the first round of which began late Saturday morning. Delegates are free to change who they vote for each round as the field is narrowed down to two candidates in the final round.

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.

The Associated Press