Sen. Bob Bennett abandoned Washington this week, spending his days in Utah pleading with Republicans until he was hoarse to let him keep his job — in Washington.
The three-term conservative is in serious danger of losing at a GOP state convention Saturday, tripped up by anti-incumbent sentiment and Utah's quirky nomination system. His only hope is to win over enough delegates to force the party to hold a primary in June.
He has until Saturday morning to pitch some 3,500 die-hard GOP convention delegates, who tend to be more conservative than Utah Republicans overall. Polls show Bennett trailing in third place.
So within days of the convention, Bennett told Republican leader Mitch McConnell not to count on his vote for financial regulation or anything else in the Senate unless necessary. He has spent nearly every waking hour talking to delegates — at breakfast joints, at city parks over pizza, by telephone.
"In the convention, it is the most retail of retail politics," Bennett said. "People expect to see you one-on-one."
Bennett is up against seven rivals, many of whom contend that the Republican — who has the backing of the National Rifle Association — isn't conservative enough for Utah. This election year, conservative Republicans have clamored for ideological purity from their candidates and shunned those who failed to meet the test, like moderate Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida.
Bennett also has had to deal with the anti-tax Club for Growth, which has spent more than $100,000 trying to defeat him, angry about his vote for the 2008 bank bailout.
While Bennett was spending the week trying to save his job with Utah Republicans, the Club for Growth chastised him Wednesday for missing votes in Washington.
Elected in 1992, Bennett promised to serve only two terms. In recent days, he has said he made a mistake when he made that promise. He's running ads highlighting his seniority and arguing that he's the only one who could look out for Utah's interests, especially since he's a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Still, his years in Washington remain an issue with some Republicans.
Jared Christensen, a 54-year-old delegate from Kearns, near Salt Lake City, said he's been pleased with the job Bennett's done but after listening to him for nearly two hours on Tuesday, he's still not sure whether he can support him. Christensen said after 18 years in office, it may be time for the 76-year-old Bennett to go.
"That's a long time. It's not like he's 21 or 41," said Christensen, who probably will see Bennett five times by Saturday. "Yet, he is very vibrant, he's very intelligent, he's very articulate."
Bennett has enlisted his family and friends. Son Jim is managing his campaign and acting as spokesman, while wife Joyce prods him at delegate events to defend his effort to steer federal dollars to the state to the benefit of programs like the Ares rocket and thousands of jobs.
At the Salt Palace Convention Center on Saturday, 2008 presidential candidate Mitt Romney will make the case for Bennett in his introduction. Sen. Orrin Hatch also will speak.
A candidate needs 60 percent of the vote at the convention to become the party's candidate. If no one reaches that threshold, then the top two vote-getters move on to a June 22 primary. Bennett's only real chance of survival is to win over enough delegates in the next few days to overtake one of the front-runners, attorney Mike Lee or businessman Tim Bridgewater, and force a primary.
Under Utah's system, all but the top three candidates are eliminated after the first round of voting. Delegates then vote a second time, and they're free to vote for someone different each time as they narrow the field.
It is here Bennett is at most risk of losing if delegates who originally supported another candidate don't make him their second choice.
"Second ballot preference statements are always squishy because they are made away from the convention, away from the emotions, away from hearing the speeches," he said. "I don't know whether we're going to come out of the second ballot or not, but I think we're clearly in second place and the dynamic of the convention makes it very possible for me to eliminate Bridgewater and be on the final ballot with Lee."
Bennett has been unable to persuade delegate Spencer Haymond, but there is a glimmer of hope. Haymond said if his first choice, conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar, doesn't make it past the first round, Bennett will get his vote on the second one.
"I see other candidates positioning themselves for a career, and he's got a built-in time clock," Haymond said.
Complicating Bennett's prospects is a convention resolution criticizing a health care bill that he sponsored with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.