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No Favorite Yet In Race To Replace Bennett

By Kyle Trygstad

The next senator from Utah will likely be decided in next week's Republican primary between attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater. The two finished on top at last month's state party convention -- ending the Senate career of incumbent Bob Bennett -- and the primary winner will have the general election advantage in the heavily-Republican state.

But with less than a week to go, there is no clear favorite in the race. At least one survey from a well-known local pollster is expected to be released over the weekend, which may provide the clearest sense of a frontrunner -- if there is one -- since the convention.

"A lot of people believe had more of the Bennett supporters stuck around to vote in that last round at the convention, Bridgewater would have won the 60 percent needed to take the nomination," said LaVarr Webb, a political consultant and former journalist in Salt Lake City. "But since the convention, Lee has picked up a little more of the momentum. And it's hard to know what's going to happen."

With the election less than a week away, two important endorsements were rolled out in the last few days. Bennett endorsed Bridgewater on Friday, and a national tea party organization, Tea Party Express, endorsed Lee Tuesday morning.

With little daylight between the candidates on the issues, the Bridgewater campaign has sought to create distance with their resumes. In a Bridgewater TV ad released Monday, the announcer states that the race is "between a businessman and a D.C.-based lawyer." Bennett's endorsement of Bridgewater highlighted that distinction as well.

"I've known Tim Bridgewater for more than a decade, and I am impressed by the fact that he, like me, brings a businessman approach to political issues," said Bennett. "Most of my colleagues in the Senate are lawyers, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but when a legal approach dominates, practical solutions often get pushed aside."

Although Bennett was ousted at the conservative-filled convention, experts in the state say he still appeals to the broad primary voting base. Bridgewater also received the backing last week of the convention's fourth-place finisher, conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar.

Along with Tea Party Express, Lee has gathered several other national conservative endorsements including Sen. Jim DeMint, former Sen. Rick Santorum, RedState.com's Erick Erickson and FreedomWorks, a conservative activist recruiting and training organization chaired by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey.

But while Lee has racked up several key tea party and conservative endorsements, Bridgewater finished first at the convention in early May with 57 percent of the final vote. And that was among some of the most conservative and activist members of the GOP.

"Both candidates come across as very conservative, and their rhetoric is fairly similar," said Webb. "Bridgewater does seem to be picking up more support from more establishment Republicans, and the business community seems to be leaning toward him a little bit more."

Lee went on the air with a TV ad a week earlier than Bridgewater, and that edge may help him in the poll expected out this weekend. While Bridgewater focused on his business experience, Lee, a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito and general counsel to former Gov. Jon Huntsman, featured his mantra of being "a true conservative and constitutional expert."

The messaging may be the deciding factor in what's expected to be a low turnout primary. As of now, Webb says, "It's probably pretty close."