Unless Sen. Bob Bennett's political fortunes change dramatically in the next two weeks, he could become Utah's first incumbent U.S. senator to lose his party's nomination in seven decades.
A new Salt Lake Tribune poll of Republican delegates shows Bennett running in third, behind GOP challengers Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater.
Lee logged 37 percent support in the survey, while Bridgewater came in at 20 percent, and Bennett lagged at 16 percent.
The survey of 400 Republican delegates, with a 4.4 percent margin of error, was conducted April 22-25 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. of Washington, D.C. It comes less than two weeks before the May 8 state GOP convention.
"Bennett has almost no shot of getting more votes at the convention than Bridgewater and Lee," Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon, said Monday.
And in a Republican race where only two can survive, that would spell the end for the three-term senator.
Bennett said tracking polls his campaign is conducting show there is a "great deal of volatility" among the delegates as support jumps from one candidate to the other, and The Tribune survey, paired with others that have been conducted, show the field remains fluid.
"The only real conclusion we can come to is that the race is still very volatile and people are changing their minds," said Bennett, his voice raspy from speaking on the stump. "I was on the phone this morning with folks who took the call by announcing they were for Lee and by the end of the call they had changed their minds and said they were for me."
Based on the delegates' second choices, The Tribune poll found Lee likely would prevail in a head-to-head convention contest against Bridgewater -- 44 percent to 30 percent. But Lee would fall short of the 60 percent needed to cinch the GOP nomination, Coker said, meaning the two would have take their fight to a June 22 primary.
If Bennett manages to edge Bridgewater and square off against Lee at the convention, Lee would snag 51 percent and Bennett 18 percent. But, with nearly a third of the delegates undecided, Lee would have a shot at reaching the 60 percent threshold.
Bennett's biggest liability, Coker said, is that delegates have a negative view of the senator: Just 28 percent see him favorably while 61 percent view him unfavorably.
Darren Park, a delegate from Riverton, is one of those. He hasn't decided between backing Lee or Bridgewater, but says he won't vote for Bennett because of the senator's health care proposal, which would have required individuals to buy health care, and his support for the first round of bank bailouts during the Bush administration.
"It's very much about Senator Bennett and not only what he has done and what he didn't do," Park said, in opposing congressional actions "that are incompatible, I believe, with the values and principles most Utahns share."
By comparison, 71 percent of delegates give Bridgewater a favorable rating and 68 percent do so for Lee.
If Bennett gets bounced at the convention, he would become the first Utah incumbent to fail to secure his party's nomination since Sen. William H. King. The four-term Democrat was ousted by Abe Murdock in 1940 by members of his party frustrated with King's vocal opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
"[This year] is different," Lee said. "This is a different set of political inputs than we've had in recent memory, perhaps in my lifetime."
Lee, an attorney, said the latest survey reflects what he has seen in his own polling and in meeting with delegates. He said he is encouraged by the numbers, but "I'm taking absolutely nothing for granted. I'm going to continue working hard trying to reach every single delegate in the state."
Bridgewater, a businessman,
said his campaign is building momentum as he meets with voters.
"We feel good about the position we're in heading into the last two weeks of the campaign," he said. "Our message of fiscal discipline and cutting government spending is resonating with voters. ... Right now it looks like it will be a primary between a businessman and a lawyer."
Bennett plans to keep making his case to delegates until the final week. He could offer more appeals from Mitt Romney in hopes that the former presidential candidate's popularity in Utah might rub off on him.
The Tribune poll shows it likely would not -- at least among delegates. Just 7 percent said Romney's support would make them more inclined to vote for Bennett, and 81 percent said it would make no difference.
The poll found that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the delegates identify themselves as supporters of the tea-party movement. That doesn't necessarily mean they carry signs at rallies, Coker said, but they support the philosophy.
"What is uniting everyone right now is fiscal conservatism, and I'm not even sure I like the term conservative. It's just responsibility. Just quit spending all the money," said David Kirkham, a co-founder of Utah's tea party movement. "There are a lot of people who are angry. Are we responsible? I'm just glad we can be part of it."
On May 8, Utah Republicans and Democrats will convene their respective state conventions in an effort to select nominees for various federal and state offices.