SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Republicans booted embattled U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett out of office and chose businessman Tim Bridgewater and attorney Mike Lee to fight it out in a primary for the party's nomination and a spot on the November ballot.
Despite an appeal for Bennett from likely presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, GOP delegates meeting at their state nominating convention on Saturday in Salt Lake City denied Bennett a run for a fourth term as their chosen candidate.
"The political atmosphere obviously has been toxic, and it's very clear that some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," Bennett, 76, told reporters, choking back tears, after he was eliminated in the second round of voting by the 3,400 delegates who attended the convention.
""Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast any of them any differently, even if I had known at the time they were going to cost me my career."
Bennett didn't answer questions after his loss but earlier Saturday told The Associated Press he wouldn't rule out a write-in candidacy. State law prohibits him from running as an independent.
Eight candidates, including Bennett, were initially in the Senate race, which took three rounds of balloting to settle on the two finalists.
Bennett survived a first round of voting among the delegates but was eliminated when he finished a distant third in the second round.
He garnered just under 27 percent of the vote, while Bridgewater had 37 percent, and Lee got 36 percent.
Neither Bridgewater, 49, nor Lee, 38, received the 60 percent of the vote necessary to avoid the primary. In the final round, Bridgewater had 57 percent of the vote and Lee was at 42 percent.
Hazell Rushton, a Davis County delegate from West Point, said she previously had been supportive of Bennett, but ended up voting for one of the two finalists.
"I think there is a need for change in America," said Rushton, a first-time delegate.
"It's time to get rid of the incumbents," said Kyle Hosman, a 39-year-old North Ogden delegate supporting Lee, after the first round of voting. "Quite frankly, I'm disgusted by what I've seen in Congress the past 10 years."
A Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, Club for Growth, admitted spending at least $180,000 to unseat Bennett, arguing the three-term senator was not fiscally conservative .
But Utah GOP Chairman Dave Hansen believes the delegates are a true microcosm of the broader voting public.
"I don't think seniority matters as much as some other factors," added Hansen, commenting on Bennett's loss.
Lee, who served as former Gov. Jon Huntsman's general counsel and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, focused his campaign on saying the federal government has exceeded its constitutional authority.
He has never run for public office before and is best known outside political circles as an attorney fighting to allow EnergySolutions Inc. to import and dispose of foreign nuclear waste in Utah's west desert.
Much of Bridgewater's momentum coming into the convention came from delegates who said they wanted a senator with business experience, not an attorney, but felt it was time for Bennett to step down.
Bridgewater grew up in a trailer park but eventually founded several small companies and became chairman and founder of Interlink Capital Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in emerging markets.
Like Lee, he served in Huntsman's administration, although on a voluntary basis as education adviser.
In other races decided at the state convention Saturday:
* Gov. Gary Herbert was easily chosen from among four candidates to be the party's November nominee.
* U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop defeated Mike Ridgway to run for another term in the Congressional district that encompasses northern Utah.
* State Rep. Ben Ferry, Corinne, was ousted by Lee Perry in House District 2.
* State Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove, Garland, defeated Don Koyle to win re-nomination in House District 1.
* State Rep. Becky Edwards, North Salt Lake, will face off with D.J. Schanz in a primary for the nomination in House District 20.
* State Rep. Melvin Brown, Coalville, was forced to primary by Jon Hellander in House District 53.
* David Butterfield, Logan, defeated Teresa Theurer to win nomination in House District 4.
* State Sen. Peter Knudson won the nomination in Senate District 17 by defeating Jeff McNeill.
Other Top of Utah candidates without GOP opponents were nominated by acclamation by delegates.
They included Rep. Brad Dee, of Washington Terrace, in House District 11, and Stuart Reid, of Ogden, for Senate District 18 in the race to replace Jon Greiner, who is the police chief in Ogden.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.