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Preliminary Battles Begin in Utah

Utah Republicans are heading into a potentially contentious convention Saturday, with a slate of gubernatorial and Congressional candidates battling to endear themselves to a few thousand, typically unpredictable delegates.

Under state party law, a candidate can avoid a primary if he or she receives the vote of at least 60 percent of delegates at the convention.

Still, few political observers are predicting an outright coronation ceremony for any of the GOP House hopefuls — with the exception of the 1st district’s Rep. Rob Bishop, who is running unopposed — which means at least six more weeks of post-convention, intraparty competition before the June 22 primary.

“Frankly, I don’t expect either one to get 60 percent [at the convention],” said Utah GOP Chairman Joe Cannon.

But the convention can still set the tone for the primary, and provide clues about its outcome.

Nowhere is the horse race more intense than in the swing 2nd district, where the GOP field is essentially a rehash of 2002. The two leading candidates — business consultant and venture capitalist Tim Bridgewater and former state Rep. and 2002 nominee John Swallow — are facing off for a second time for the chance to take on two-term Rep. Jim Matheson (D). National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti calls District 2 one of national Republicans’ “top challenger races.”

While the Congressional competitions may be overshadowed by the hard to predict eight-person GOP gubernatorial field — which includes acting Gov. Olene Walker — that hasn’t stopped the two top contenders from working overtime to get their message out to the more than 1,200 delegates in the 2nd.

In 2002, Bridgewater triumphed in a convention field of a dozen candidates, only to lose to Swallow, the No. 2 finisher, by some 1,900 votes in the primary.

Nevertheless, both Swallow and Bridgewater continue to shoot for an outright convention win.

“We are getting close,” said Swallow, who noted that his campaign had secured signed pledge cards from more than 550 delegates. Add in those delegates the campaign believes are leaning its way, says Swallow, and the number sits at about 650, with an additional 300 undecided delegates expected to break 50-50.

But talk to the Bridgewater camp and you’ll hear just the opposite.

According to Bridgewater campaign manager Alan Crooks, their canvass of 719 delegates shows Bridgewater up 4.8 percent over Swallow, with 13 percent refusing to answer, and 30 percent undecided. An earlier straw poll of delegates in Salt Lake County — the most populous in the state — showed Bridgewater besting Swallow 54 percent to 42 percent.

“Our current data shows we have a shot at 60 percent,” Crooks said.

In the money chase, however, Swallow, who began raising funds as early as June 2003, has far outpaced Bridgewater, raking in more than $600,000 through March 31 (including between $120,000 and $130,000 from the conservative Club for Growth). Swallow had a little over $300,000 on hand.

Meanwhile, Bridgewater has about $243,000 in his account — he has loaned his campaign more than $250,000 — including the roughly $20,000 he hauled in at a Houston fundraiser Monday hosted by Neil Bush, the president’s brother.

Bridgewater and Neil Bush are close, having co-founded the company Interlink Management Corp., in the 1990s. And, in 2002, the Bush brother even stumped for him.

Bridgewater is also a Bush ‘pioneer,’ meaning he has raised at least $100,000 for the president’s re-election campaign.

But the candidate’s use of the Bush name did earn him a minor rebuke late last month after a Bridgewater radio spot and press release prompted the Republican National Committee to ask him to “cease and desist from referring to President Bush in any of your campaign advertisements and/or materials … that could imply that [he] supports your campaign.”

Crooks is quick to point out that the campaign had stopped running the radio spot about a month before the letter was sent.

A third GOP candidate, Salt Lake County Councilman David Wilde, is considered a long shot, with a mere $4,384 on hand.

Still, whoever emerges triumphant will have his work cut out for him. Despite Matheson’s participation in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline Democrats” program — for those incumbents considered most vulnerable — he has proven himself an adept fundraiser, posting almost $800,000 on hand through March 31.

“The truth of the matter is Matheson is really quite popular,” said one Utah Republican source.

Meanwhile, in the central 3rd Congressional district — which includes parts of Salt Lake County and is home to Brigham Young University — four-term Rep. Chris Cannon (R) is facing a surprising two-man challenge from attorney Greg Hawkins and former state Rep. Matt Throckmorton (R), and the very real possibility of a primary.

While most political observers expect Cannon to emerge triumphant from any potential primary, not even the Cannon campaign is predicting outright victory at the convention.

“Anytime you have two legitimate challengers under the Utah convention system, the prospects and the possibility of getting into a primary are pretty good. It’s just simple arithmetic,” said Cannon Chief of Staff Joe Hunter.

Hunter declined to give the exact results of the campaign’s ongoing canvassing of delegates, but did say, “We are within a very few percentage points of 60” percent.

He added that the Congressman has met with “probably 300 of the 1,100” delegates, with the campaign contacting an additional 600 or so by phone. This week a letter touting Cannon’s record signed by President Bush was sent to all delegates.

Both challengers maintain they have enough delegates to force a primary.

Hawkins, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Orrin Hatch at the 2000 GOP convention, said his campaign’s delegate canvass indicates his support is hovering at between 48 percent and 52 percent, “unless everybody’s lied to us.”

To date, Hawkins said he has had “over 100 hours” of face-to-face meetings with delegates and has sent out 20,000 pieces of direct mail.

Hawkins, who hails from Salt Lake County, is also counting on the fact that both Cannon and Throckmorton are from Utah County to help boost his chances. Even Cannon supporters, such as the Congressman’s brother and state GOP Chairman Joe Cannon, said that of the two challengers Hawkins is the more likely to end up in a theoretical primary given the party’s balloting rules.

But Throckmorton, who unsuccessfully sought the seat in 2002, says his numbers show him clocking in at 37 percent to 38 percent, with that number growing once 2nd place votes are reallocated.

The most divisive issue of the campaign so far has been immigration policy, with Throckmorton sharply attacking Cannon’s proposal to give undocumented farm workers temporary visas. The issue has attracted the attention of national anti-immigration groups, one of which — ProjectUSA — has paid for billboards attacking Cannon.

Cannon has fired back, using his perch from a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing to suggest that some critics of his proposals were beholden to or linked to “anti-life” groups.

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