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Bennett Survives First Ballot at Utah GOP Convention

Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), who is fighting for his political life at Saturday’s Republican nominating convention, has survived the first round of balloting, but the bigger test is yet to come.

Bennett took just 26 percent in the first round, which put him in third place behind attorney Mike Lee (29 percent) and businessman Tim Bridgewater (27 percent). But it was good enough to move on to the next round of balloting.

A crucial question now will be how the 16 percent of delegates who supported businesswoman Cherilyn Eagar break in the next vote. Eagar came in fourth place and will not be on the next ballot.

About 3,450 elected delegates are gathered at Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace to pick the party’s nominee. Under the unusual format, a candidate can avoid a June 22 statewide primary election by earning 60 percent of the delegate vote at the convention. If that doesn’t happen, the top two finishers face off in the primary.

Bennett’s problem with his party’s base began in part after he became a key Republican voice during passage of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout bill in 2008. Ever since that vote he’s been on the receiving end of a strong conservative backlash, and his multiple primary opponents have worked to paint him as a Republican in name only. Last year, the powerful anti-tax group the Club for Growth decided to make Bennett a top target, and the group has spent heavily lobbying for his defeat.

In making his pitch to return to the Senate for a fourth term, Bennett was joined by former Massachusetts governor and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Saturday. Romney eventually lost the nomination, but he swept overwhelmingly Mormon Utah in the 2008 presidential primary.

“Today, he faces an uphill battle at this convention,” Romney said in introducing Bennett before his convention speech. “Some may disagree with a handful of his votes. … But with the sweep and arrogance of the liberal onslaught today in Washington, we need Bob Bennett’s skill and intellect and loyalty and power.”

If he can make it to the primary, Bennett should start in a decent position.

A public opinion poll of rank-and-file primary voters commissioned by the Salt Lake Tribune and released Sunday found Bennett leading the field with 39 percent, followed by Lee with 20 percent and Bridgewater with 14 percent.

But that poll showed Bennett’s support to be very weak among convention delegates.

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