Voters like Bob, delegates don't
Kristina Talbot says as far as she's concerned, it's time for Bob Bennett to go.
The three-term senator has been in office too long and is too steeped in the Washington culture, says Talbot, a delegate to the Republican State Convention from West Point.
"We need some new blood," Talbot said. "Most of it is anger toward Washington and the Republican Party ... because people think our party has been letting us down lately. And a lot of people think Bob Bennett is back there and he's not stepping up to the plate like he should be."
It's delegates like her that have put Bennett's back against the wall, with support from just 16 percent of delegates, according to a poll by The Salt Lake Tribune .
But the animosity toward Bennett does not appear to have bled through to the average voter.
"A lot of people don't like him. I like him. He's done a good job so far," said Sheila DuBois
Thirty-nine percent of Republican voters would support Bennett's re-election, according to The Tribune poll. That's nearly twice as much support as his nearest competitor, attorney Mike Lee, who received 20 percent of GOP support. Businessman Tim Bridgewater had 14 percent. The two challengers are unknown to a large number of voters.
"That's extraordinary," said Utah State University political science professor Michael Lyons. "Some would interpret that as an indictment of the Utah caucus system. The system is empowering activists who are ideologues. ... I'm surprised that there is that much difference between the delegates and the public opinion generally."
Bennett would also fare better than either of his two opponents in a hypothetical matchup against possible Democratic nominee Sam Granato. The businessman is challenged by Chris Stout for the party nomination.
Bennett would beat Granato by 28 percentage points, Lee would win by 25 points and Bridgewater by 19.
"I don't know what all the hoopla is about Senator Bennett. He's a good man and I think he's done a good job," said Mel Howard, of Taylorsville, who can't figure out why Utahns would want to oust the long-serving Bennett. "These senior senators do the state a lot of good if they vote the way we want."
Bennett said he thinks voters have a different focus than Republican delegates.
"The general public focuses more on ability to accomplish things in Washington and the delegates focus more on your ideological stand in Washington," he said Thursday.
He believes delegates are wary of him because he has been willing to work with Democrats on certain issues.
"If your primary focus is on ideology, somebody who is willing to talk to other people -- even if he agrees with your ideology -- is a little more suspect than somebody who is ideology only," he said.
But Bridgewater writes off Bennett's lead with voters as a function of name recognition.
"Once voters get to know whoever will get into a primary, they can make a judgment based on the merit of the candidates and not just [popularity]," he said.
Indeed, according to The Tribune poll, nearly a third of Republican voters don't know who Lee is, and 38 percent don't recognize Bridgewater's name. All but four percent know Bennett.
Among all voters, 47 percent can't place Lee's name and 53 percent don't know Bridgewater's.
Kelly Patterson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said the state delegates are tuned into who Bennett's challengers are, much more so than the average voter at this point, so the average voter is more likely to back the guy they know.
"What you're measuring at that level is just popularity," he said.
In light of that, he said the challengers actually stack up better than he would have expected.
"Obviously this campaign has broken through a little bit," Patterson said. "People are paying attention."
The Tribune poll also found the delegates are much more favorably disposed to the tea party agenda.
Sixty-eight percent of delegates identified themselves as supporters of the tea party movement, while less than half of Republican voters and 38 percent of voters statewide call themselves tea party supporters.
"The tea party people are just reaching back into history," said delegate Talbot. "They want America to be America again. They want to get rid of all the garbage back in Washington. They want big government out of our lives. We don't want you telling us what health insurance we have to buy."
Thirty-one percent of voters contacted by The Tribune said the economy is the top issue facing the country, followed by government spending and taxes and the spread of government into the private sector.
The question posed to delegates was slightly different, asking what they believed was the biggest threat to the country. In that poll, 31 percent said government spending and debt, followed by 19 percent who answered government expansion and 13 percent who said loss of individual liberties. Twelve percent said the loss of moral values, compared with just 4 percent of voters who said that was the top issue. Only 5 percent viewed the economic recession as the biggest threat.
Matt Canham contributed to this report.