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With Shurtleff Out, Bennett May Escape Serious Primary Challenge

A day after he shocked Utah political watchers by dropping his primary bid against Sen. Bob Bennett (R), state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said in an interview late Thursday afternoon that he believes he still has a role to play in the effort to oust the three-term Senator next year.Shurtleff said he believes the primary field will grow now that he’s out of the race. He said he would consider throwing his support behind one of those new candidates. “I’m keeping my options open,— Shurtleff said, adding that he’s already spoken with two potential “bigger-name— GOP candidates and was planning to meet one for breakfast Friday.Among those names that have been floated since the attorney general dropped his bid are businessman Fred Lampropoulos, a former gubernatorial candidate who has deep pockets and statewide GOP connections, and Mike Lee, a former gubernatorial general counsel and the son of former U.S. Solicitor General Rex Lee. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) also continues to be floated as a possible primary contender, but he has not indicated he is serious about the race.Shurtleff also expressed doubt that any of the three remaining GOP challengers in the race would be able to mount a serious challenge to Bennett next year. “Without taking anything away from the current candidates who are still in there against Sen. Bennett, I don’t think they can win,— Shurtleff said.The moves to challenge Bennett in the primary can be traced back to his efforts to help pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008. While he was hailed on Capitol Hill as a chief negotiator on the bill, that distinction has turned into a dubious one back home in Utah, which remains one of the most conservative states in the country.Along with earning a slew of primary challengers and the “Republican in name only— label from conservative activists, Bennett has also found a powerful enemy in the anti-tax Club for Growth, which has made him an early target this cycle.Shurtleff said he expects the club to continue to target Bennett and perhaps be a major player leading up to the state nominating convention in May.Under Utah’s party convention format, a candidate can avoid a primary by earning 60 percent of the delegate vote at the convention. If that doesn’t happen, the top two finishers face off in a June primary.Bennett raised just over $400,000 in the third quarter and reported $792,000 in cash on hand as of Sept. 30. Shurtleff raised just over $100,000 in the same time period and reported $146,000 in the bank at the end of the third quarter. Shurtleff announced he was pulling out of the race on Wednesday because of his daughter’s mental health issues. In the wake of that announcement, Bennett released a statement wishing Shurtleff and his family well.“Mark Shurtleff clearly has his priorities straight putting his family first,— the Senator wrote in his statement. “I am distressed to hear this new information about Mark’s daughter and wish him and his family the very best as they work through this challenge.—