Image: Bob Bennett
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Sen. Robert Bennett is considered a moderate in his home state, Utah.
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updated 3/24/2010 4:39:32 PM ET 2010-03-24T20:39:32

Fighting to hang on to an office he has held since 1992, Utah Sen. Bob Bennett began wooing delegates Wednesday to vote for him at the state's Republican convention.

Bennett, who is seeking fourth term, faces a wave of opposition from the right, and describes this campaign as the toughest of his career. Beyond the seven GOP challengers targeting him, he must counter Republican critics who deride him for supporting the bailout of the banking industry and for not being conservative enough.

Making matters even tougher for Bennett, who is considered a moderate in Utah, is the state's unique system for nominating candidates, a process that tends to favor more conservative candidates.

On Tuesday, about 3,500 delegates were chosen in neighborhood caucuses, kicking off a six-week race to the state convention in May, which could decide who will be the Republican Party's nominee. If Bennett, or any other candidate, fails to get 60 percent of delegate support after several rounds of voting, they would be forced into a June primary, and Bennett is bracing for that prospect.

At a neighborhood caucus meeting Tuesday night, Bennett worked a crowd of registered Republicans — recognizing at one point that one of his GOP challengers lives just a few blocks away from his downtown Salt Lake City home.

It was a striking indication that not even the most moderate of neighborhoods in this strongly conservative state is a safe haven for Bennett anymore.

Yet while Bennett's seven intraparty challengers are the most any candidate for state or federal office is facing in Utah, he exudes confidence that he has what it takes to win.

In many ways, he does. He's got an unparalleled organizational effort and federal records show he has more cash to spend than all of his opponents combined.

But the state's unique nominating system also means that much of that cash is largely meaningless. Because the delegates who were chosen Tuesday night can play a decisive role in who becomes the Republican Party's nominee, candidates can campaign inexpensively and on a face-to-face level. While some delegates may already support a certain candidate, they aren't obligated to vote for them.

One of Bennett's challengers, Provo piano technician Jeremy Friedbaum, already has experience making incumbents sweat it out in a primary. Friedbaum forced former U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon into a primary in 1998 after saying he was led by God to challenge him.

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"I think he's guilty of economic treason. I don't think there's any other Republican in the Senate that's more responsible for the recent financial collapse than him," said Friedbaum.

It's a frequent criticism of Bennett, who sits on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee. Bennett has also come under fire for supporting the banking bailout, although he's quick to note he opposed a bailout of the auto industry.

Bennett accounts for much of the opposition to him to an anti-Washington sentiment, but acknowledges he was a little surprised at how many people are challenging him.

"Since a lot of people feel that the race is between me and anybody but Bennett, there are some folks who are saying, 'Well, if it's going to be the last man standing against Bennett, it might as well be me," he said. "In fact, when it comes to down to me and whichever one of these survives against me, I think at that point the mystery will disappear and I will be clearly in good shape."

If Bennett is forced into a primary, his name recognition and fundraising ability are likely to play into his favor as are the demographics of primary voters, who tend to be more moderate than convention delegates.

But his opponents are working to make sure Bennett never makes it that far.

Alpine attorney Mike Lee, one of Bennett's most credible challengers, believes there's enough dissatisfaction with Washington that Bennett could be defeated at the convention.

While he contends he's the one who can do it, he says any conservative would do if he's knocked out in an early round of voting.

"I don't purport to have the ability to dictate where my supporters would go," Lee said. "That said, I would be happy to encourage them to support any conservative challenger."

Not everyone agrees that any challenger is better than Bennett.

Former U.S. Rep. Merrill Cook, who was courting potential delegates only feet away from Bennett at their caucus meeting on Tuesday, only announced he was running for Senate a few weeks ago after he says he was disappointed with the other challengers.

"You're looking at the only one that could replace him and do a better job," Cook said. "I'm not saying others may not be able to ... (but) I don't have any level of confidence in that yet."

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