SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Sen. Bob Bennett – darling of the National Rifle Association and grandson of a Mormon Church president – suddenly may not be conservative enough for ultraconservative Utah.
Bennett could become the first 2010 election casualty among incumbent U.S. senators if he fails to win at least 40 percent of the 3,500 delegates at the state GOP's convention May 8.
His struggle to win a fourth six-year term underscores two forces driving the GOP's fortunes in 2010 as the party out of power seeks more seats in Congress: Incumbency isn't a problem just for Democrats, and ideological purity is an issue of increasing importance for many Republican voters.
"It's hitting just about every incumbent," Bennett said in a recent interview. "The Republicans in this election, they're feeling that's really good because most of the incumbents are Democrats. But in this state, there is no Democrat to get really mad at in this fashion, so they get mad at me."
Bennett isn't the only Republican officeholder who may be dumped by his own party this year. Florida Republicans have all but cast out Gov. Charlie Crist in favor of tea party star Marco Rubio for another Senate seat.
Two of seven challengers could knock Bennett out of the race by each getting at least two-fifths of the convention delegates to advance to a June 22 primary. Three have a shot at it – attorney Mike Lee, businessman Tim Bridgewater and conservative activist Cherilyn Eager.
Bennett's list of perceived political transgressions is long. He voted for the massive federal bank bailout two years ago and co-authored a bipartisan alternative to the Democrats' health care overhaul, both deeply unpopular here and seen as government grabs for more power. Voters also remember his campaign promise 18 years ago to serve only 12 years in the Senate.
"I know damn well a major part of his campaign was that he would not run for over two terms," said delegate Orval Harrison, a 70-year-old retired lawyer.
Bennett, 76, concedes that he did not sense the buildup of voter anger toward Washington nor its intensity. To win over "the people mad at Washington," he's been holding face-to-face meetings with state GOP convention delegates.
"They don't feel they know me, so I got to invite them to Chili's and buy 'em lunch and let 'em get reacquainted," he said.
Over quesadillas at one recent meeting, Bennett was asked his position on Afghanistan. Does he think people should be required to have health insurance? And what's his plan for reining in federal spending?
Bennett, more comfortable before a small crowd of 60 than one-on-one, said he favors staying in Afghanistan as long as necessary; wants the waste in entitlement programs like Social Security cut and says that insurance companies shouldn't be required to insure people who don't want that protection.
He defended his vote for the bank bailout by saying Utah businesses told him they would lay off employees without it. And he quotes Mitt Romney, a possible presidential contender and a Mormon, as saying the vote was the right thing to do. Romney, considered Utah's adopted son, has endorsed Bennett and is expected to campaign for him at the convention.
As for Bennett's self-imposed but now-ignored two-term limit, the senator says he's the only one in Utah's GOP field of Senate hopefuls with the connections and the knowledge to get anything done in Washington.
Bennett impressed some in the gathering that day.
"I kind of went into the caucuses kind of anti-incumbent along with everybody else, just because I was feeling that frustration against Washington," said Suzy Matheson, 28, a stay-at-home mom. "But he really has kind of won me over."
Laurie Kellman reported from Washington.
Eds: CORRECTS number of GOP challengers to seven. CLARIFIES that Romney is expected to campaign for Bennett at convention, time of Bennett's meeting with delegates.