Salt Lake City, Utah (CNN) - Facing significant anger aimed at Washington and at some of his past votes, Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah survived a first test at the state party convention Saturday. He still, however, must overcome large obstacles in order to stay alive in his quest for re-election.
Facing seven other more conservative candidates, Bennett has been the focus of withering criticism from members of his own party as well as Tea Party activists.
Surviving the first test, Bennett is one of the three contenders who garnered enough votes in the first round of balloting from the nearly 3500 delegates to move on to the next stage later Saturday. If any candidate gets 60 percent of the delegates' support in any round, that candidate becomes the nominee. If no candidate reaches that threshold, the top two vote getters will face-off in a June 22 primary.
The candidate receiving the most support on the first ballot was Mike Lee, a lawyer running on a platform of strict adherence to the constitution and limited government. Both Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater, who have significant support from Tea Party activists in the state, got more votes than Bennett did in the first round. Lee received 982 votes, followed by Bridgewater at 917 and Bennett at 885.
Hoping to build support, Bennett enlisted the help of Mitt Romney, a hugely popular politician in Utah, to introduce him to the delegates. Noting that Bennett often is not the best at promoting himself, Romney said, "[T]oday I want to speak up for him."
While there is a lot of anger aimed at the incumbent, the former presidential hopeful Romney said that Bennett is "a man Utah can't afford to lose…we need Bob Bennett's skill."
Acknowledging the anger, frustration and a desire for change expressed by many of the delegates, the mild-mannered Bennett told the crowd, "I hear you when you say you want a fighter who will reflect that passion, telling the world that Utahans love their country and are deeply concerned about its future." With many in the crowd supporting fiscal conservatism, Bennett highlighted a proposal he is pushing in Congress to audit the Federal Reserve, as well as his support for a balanced budget amendment and efforts to rein in entitlement spending.
Previous polls showed Bennett is facing the fight of his political life, lagging behind either one or two of the other GOP candidates. As a result, Bennett has mounted an effort in recent weeks to increase his support. His campaign launched a television ad touting how much help Bennett can bring to the state, and the senator stayed home this week to participate in a series of debates.
If Bennett does not get a chance to fight for re-election in November, it will send shock waves throughout the political community as he will be the first GOP Capitol Hill incumbent to fall victim to the anti-Washington, anti-incumbency fervor fueled in part by the Tea Party movement.
More than half of the convention's delegates said they support the Tea Party and its principles of states rights and small federal government, according to a recent poll conducted by the Deseret News/KSL-TV.
While Bennett has won the support of several conservative organizations and has received negative ratings from liberal groups, some of Bennett's opponents have focused on his vote for the 2008 financial bailout, known as TARP.
"I don't think it's a matter of conservative. I think it's a matter of fiscal or financial responsibility, what the Tea Party people are about and the vote for TARP and the vote for the bailout was, in our opinion, pretty fiscally irresponsible and that's what's raised the ire of most people," David Kirkham told CNN in an interview. Kirkham, a businessman who builds and restores sports cars, was so upset about the bailout issue that he was motivated to form the Utah Tea Party chapter last year. "That one vote was pretty toxic. That one vote affected a lot of things, changed the rules of the game. President Bush said that where we have to abandon free market principles to save the free market and fundamentally, we just don't agree. There's just no way."
Bennett told CNN in an interview earlier this week he had no regrets over that vote. "I do not because we were facing a very genuine crisis. And I would not want my career to be marked with shirking my responsibility to prevent that crisis from happening since the financial system was at such risk."
He has also come under criticism for working with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, last year on a health care overhaul proposal, his pursuit of earmarks, and his votes supporting an increase in the national debt.
"I want to do this again because the fire in my belly is burning brighter than ever," Bennett said. Highlighting one of his key themes that he can do more to help the state if he is re-elected, the three-term incumbent told the delegates, "I can do this because I now have tools I lacked as a freshman. Give me the chance to use them as we face the current crisis of unsustainable debt."