Bennett's ace in the hole: Mitt Romney
Washington » When Sen. Bob Bennett faces delegates at his party's convention in less than three weeks, the embattled Republican will step on stage with Utah's most revered politician, Mitt Romney.
The former presidential candidate, who won 89.5 percent of Utah's GOP presidential primary in 2008, has already appeared in television ads and campaign literature for Bennett, and appears to be the senator's trump card as he heads into his most difficult re-election bid.
Bennett, who is vying against seven fellow party members for a fourth term, has turned to Romney on several occasions and is hoping a last-minute appearance by the state's seemingly adopted son could help sway enough votes to keep Bennett afloat.
"He certainly has the highest approval rating of any politician outside the state and certainly as high as any inside the state," Bennett said Monday. "So sure, we're always happy to have him show up."
But Bennett says his main thrust is not endorsements, but face-to-face meetings with delegates.
Others see Bennett's use of the former presidential candidate -- who became a state star when he rescued the scandal-tarred 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City -- as Bennett's big draw heading into the May 8 convention.
"It certainly helps Bob. It is probably the only way he survives," says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a one-time candidate against Bennett who is now supporting challenger Mike Lee.
The attorney general expects the Romney effect to be minimal at convention, but very powerful if Bennett makes it into a primary. He believes the delegates respect Romney but are convinced that it is time to get new blood in Washington.
"It probably hurts Romney," Shurtleff said of his expected convention appearance. "It is very confusing to people here."
In his first letter to delegates after their election at neighborhood caucuses in March, Bennett noted the differences between himself and the other challengers. "Tim Bridgewater was a paid operative for John McCain's presidential campaign, while I was supporting Mitt Romney," he wrote.
While the GOP establishment rallied around McCain when he became the party's clear nominee, there was a rumbling of concern about comments from his campaign or supporters about the Mormon religion -- the predominant faith in Utah.
Bridgewater, for his part, said he has great respect for Romney.
"He will certainly help Senator Bennett pick up some support among undecided voters, but I don't think it will be enough to get him into a primary," Bridgewater said Monday. The former two-time congressional candidate said his work for McCain shouldn't be a big issue in the Utah race.
"This election is about who is best positioned to represent Utah, not outside influences," Bridgewater said. "No one in this race worked harder to defeat Barack Obama than I did."
Cherilyn Eagar, another candidate who was a supporter of Romney's 2008 campaign, has said she's disappointed that Romney is backing the incumbent.
Romney has not embraced the tea party movement, which has coalesced to oppose Bennett. University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank said Romney reminds delegates that they don't oppose the entire Republican establishment.
"What Senator Bennett's hoping he'll get here is the message that being a political insider isn't a bad thing and here's an example: Most of the delegates I suspect are big fans of Mitt Romney and would like to see him be the Republican nominee for president," Burbank said. "Well, the only reason he can do that is because he's paid his dues within the party."
On the opposite side, Romney's endorsement and campaigning for Bennett could come back to haunt him in a presidential race if Bennett loses to more conservative candidates.
It's "the same kind of threat Obama faces when he comes out for a candidate: If the candidate loses, it becomes read as a sign that Romney's political strength is not as great as we suspect or as he suspects," says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "And given he's not a clear frontrunner, he can't afford that. He really needs to be in a position of strength."