SALT LAKE CITY -- Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett would be the favorite to win a GOP primary if he can survive a challenge at the state convention and make it onto the ballot, according to a poll of likely Republican voters.
The results released Sunday show Bennett is not in nearly as much trouble with rank-and-file voters in this highly conservative state as he is with delegates to the state convention, who have the ability to end his 18-year political career on Saturday under Utah's unique nominating system.
Bennett has come under fire for aggressively pursuing earmarks for his state, co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill mandating health insurance coverage and supporting the financial industry bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
"I was opposed to him voting for TARP," delegate Debra Hawkins said at a recent event. "If everything he says is accurate, I see why he voted that way. I'm just not sure if the basic premise is correct -- that it was all going to crumble."
Some delegates have also expressed anger that Bennett is still in office after initially pledging to only serve two terms.
Bennett will be eliminated if he fails to win at least 40 percent of the 3,500 delegate votes at the state GOP's convention. A statewide June 22 primary featuring the top two candidates would be needed if no single candidate ends up with 60 percent of the vote.
The poll, commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune, found that 39 percent of Republican voters want Bennett to serve a fourth term, leading all challengers. Attorney Mike Lee received 20 percent of voters' support and businessman Tim Bridgewater had 14 percent, according to the poll.
"It demonstrates that Sen. Bennett is very popular in the state of Utah and that the voters ought to have an opportunity to express their position in a primary," said Bennett's son and campaign spokesman, Jim Bennett.
The survey of 400 likely Utah voters was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. from April 26 to April 28 and had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The results contrast with another Tribune poll that found just 16 percent of delegates to the state convention want Bennett re-elected, placing him in danger of being eliminated after the second of three rounds of balloting at the convention.
Lee and Bridgewater led all candidates in the survey of GOP delegates.
Messages left with Lee and Bridgewater on Sunday were not immediately returned.
Lee and Bridgewater's low numbers among likely Republican voters could have to do with their low name recognition. The poll said 47 percent didn't know who Lee was while 53 percent didn't know Bridgewater's name.
At this point in the campaign, candidates aren't trying to win over the general public and commercials are rare. They're solely focused on winning the votes of delegates, who they frequently meet with one-on-one.
Over the weekend, Bennett tried to reassure delegates of his conservative record by reminding them he was endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
In a Saturday letter to supporters and those who signed up for updates on his website, Bennett said he was mischaracterized by an unspecified group that had mailed a letter to delegates saying he isn't a strong supporter of gun rights.
"I couldn't think of anything further from the truth," he wrote.
Bennett responded by attaching the NRA's endorsement letter.