New Purity Test: Utah's Bennett Faces Conservative Challenge

Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett is in danger of losing his job on Saturday when the state GOP holds a convention to determine the party's 2010 Senate nominee.

"The anger is palpable," Bennett told CNN on Thursday. "The anger's very strong and that's why I am in trouble."

The trouble in which Bennett finds himself is not expected to change the balance of power in Washington: Utah is such a thoroughly Republican state that Democrats do not have a serious chance in November.

Bennett's plight, however, is a sign of the increasing ideological purity that conservatives are demanding this year.

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In Florida, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist saw his political standing erode after he embraced President Obama's stimulus package. Crist's standing had deteriorated so significantly among Republican primary voters that he announced last week he was going to abandon the GOP primary and run for the U.S. Senate without a party affiliation in the hopes of attracting more moderate independent voters.

Several factors are contributing to Bennett's plight with Republican convention-goers in Utah on top of general distaste with the growing spending in Washington:

For starters, Bennett is under scrutiny for backing the Wall Street bailout in 2008. Although the bailout, which is formally known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), was supported by President Bush and many Republicans in Congress, Bennett has to defend his vote to the 3,500 die-hard Republican activists who participate in the convention.

Second, Bennett has not followed his 1992 pledge to serve only two six-year terms in the Senate. He is seeking his fourth term.

Third, Bennett partnered with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, on health care legislation. Although the bill differed substantially from the legislation signed into law by President Obama, some Republican activists do not like the idea that Bennett was cooperating with a Democrat on this issue.

Bennett is running against seven Republican opponents. His top two rivals are businessman Tim Bridgewater and attorney Mike Lee.

Sixty percent of convention delegates are needed to become the GOP's nominee. If no candidate reaches that threshold, then the top two vote-getters move on to a June 22 primary.

The Republican Party of Utah expects to have final results between 6 and 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Because there are multiple rounds of voting, it is possible that Bennett could be knocked out earlier in the afternoon if he does not make it to the third and final round of balloting.

If Bennett gets knocked out in an earlier round, he will not make it to the June 22 primary ballot and he will not be the Republican Party nominee for the Senate seat he has been holding for 18 years.

As he makes his final appeal to delegates, Bennett is receiving some high-profile help.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the once and likely future Republican presidential candidate, will speak on Bennett's behalf on Saturday at the Salt Palace Convention Center. Bennett also will be touted by Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah's other Republican senator.

Bennett knows that he faces an uphill climb, but he is hoping to hold on to his Senate seat by courting convention delegates one by one.

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