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Huge lead doesn't mean 'beanpole' senator is relaxing

This past spring when the first opinion poll was conducted on Utah's upcoming election for U.S. senator, Bob Bennett not surprisingly found himself way ahead of the pack.

Nearing the end of his second term, the popular politician received the nod from 63 percent of the poll's statewide respondents. Lagging far behind were Democrat challenger Paul Van Dam and Don't Know, each tallying only 16 percent.

Staggering lead notwithstanding, the good news didn't mean Utah's junior senator was about to take his opponent lightly, though.

"While we're obviously very encouraged," Bennett said this spring, "we will run a serious race because Paul Van Dam is a very serious politician on the other side."

You'd have a hard time guessing that, judging his campaign so far. Serious isn't exactly the tone of Bennett's billboards, which contain quick-read blurbs that deliver punchlines and describe his personal traits without delving into serious issues or politics. While he might be taking the former Utah attorney general seriously, Bennett isn't necessarily giving himself the same serious treatment.

If you've missed the signs — the ones that didn't reveal who they were talking about until recently — they read as follows:

Able. Articulate. Aerodynamic.

Big heart. Big ideas. Big ears.

Bold. Brilliant. Beanpole.

Honest. Humble. Hairless.

Trustworthy. Tireless. Tall.

Better looking than Abraham Lincoln. (Just barely.)

The light-hearted — and reportedly effective — approach could be taken as a reflection of Bennett's comfort level with his own looks and, more importantly, of his enviable pole-position spot in the Senate race. Weeks before the Nov. 2 election, he has a huge poll lead (60 percent to Van Dam's 23 percent) and at last check owns a very high approval rating (73 percent).

Though his ads show he has a sense of humor, Bennett isn't always one to dilly-dally in small talk and pleasantries. His son, Jim, describes him as being "more comfortable talking about substantive big ideas. He likes talking about things that matter."

To wit, a recent interview with a reporter quickly went from brief informal get-to-know-you chit-chat to how Malaysia dealt with Y2K issues to talking about Industrial Loan Corporations' impact on Utah's economy to discussing the importance of keeping Hill Air Force Base functioning.

Though Utah's other Republican senator, Orrin Hatch, often gets the public spotlight, Bennett has compiled a list of accomplishments and positions that have earned him acclaim during his two terms. Most notable was his involvement with security and transportation for the 2002 Olympics and his pet project of the late '90s — his consistent blowing of the Y2K dilemma warning trumpet as the chairman of the Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, lauded him for being one of the first "to understand the significance of the issue and helped educate his Senate colleagues. This could have easily turned into a partisan battle."

Bennett fought to tackle the issue head-on rather than forking over the money to replace everything as some suggested. He urged the president to appoint a Y2K czar, helping lead to "virtually no event transition" when midnight 1999 turned into the year 2000. In other words, the world didn't stop clicking, and we weren't thrown back into the Dark Ages.

Without his clarion call, Bennett says "we still would've gotten through it pretty well, but it would've been more expensive. People were prepared and paying attention earlier."

His efforts also led to the first-ever computer inventory of the Department of Defense, which led to some startling finds — namely 286 ancient (relatively speaking) computers still being used in the system.

Bennett holds a post on the Senate leadership team, serving as chief deputy majority whip, allowing him to meet regularly with President Bush and advise Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist; he sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he's helped garner funds for TRAX and commuter rail; he is a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee, helping push Bush's tax cuts; and he is chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and the Joint Economic Committee.

Though he doesn't participate in trendy sports activities like golf or tennis, Bennett keeps in shape partly by hiking up and down stairs around Capitol Hill. He figures he climbs between 20 and 30 flights a day. "Do that three or four times a week, you stay in pretty good health," he says.

In his ad campaign poking fun at his lean 6-foot-6 frame, the senator is hoping for an "oh, yeah, Bennett" response — and he's had enough experience in politics to know "in an election year, you have to cut through the clutter. Your ads don't just compete with your opponent's." They also compete with ads for beer, cars, jail bonds and so forth.

One person who didn't find the ad campaign too funny at first, however, was the senator's wife of 42 years, Joyce Bennett. She wasn't thrilled about "people making fun of my husband," the senator said. Knowing that the humor came from her own family and wasn't mean-spirited eased her worries, he added. "She's happy with it now."

Family is the most important aspect in the life of Bennett, whose father's name graces the exterior of the downtown Salt Lake federal building. And Bennett, aside from being three-fourths of a foot taller, is the spitting image of the late Wallace F. Bennett, who served four terms in the U.S. Senate. His family started Bennett Paint & Glass Co. and worked in setting up Dinwoody's furniture store and ZCMI.

Born in Salt Lake City on Sept. 18, 1933, Bennett was in the same high school class (East High, 1950) as former Sen. Jake Garn and former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen. In college, he was the University of Utah student body president and a member of Skull and Bones and Delta Phi. He served an LDS mission in Scotland before marrying Joyce McKay, an accomplished flutist and the granddaughter of LDS Church President David O. McKay (Bennett is the grandson of Heber J. Grant, another former LDS Church president). They have six children and eight grandchildren.

Bennett's professional career — and his bank account — is highlighted by his involvement with the Franklin Institute, a once-small Utah day-planner company he, as CEO in the mid-1980s, helped transform into an international time-management phenom firm. He was named "Entrepreneur of the Year" by Inc. Magazine.

Before that, Bennett worked his way around Washington, D.C., as a press secretary, a liaison for the Transportation Department, and a lobbyist for Howard Hughes' interests. It was at that PR firm, however, that Bennett involuntarily became involved with Watergate, even to the point he was identified by some as being "Deep Throat," the source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose stories on the scandal are credited for bringing down President Richard Nixon.

An associate at Bennett's firm, E. Howard Hunt, planned the Watergate break-in of the office of the head of the National Democratic Committee (Larry O'Brien, coincidentally Bennett's predecessor at Hughes Tool Co.) in 1972. Bennett's firm, Mullen, became subject to federal investigation, leading some, including Newsweek and Rolling Stone magazine, to claim the ordeal was really a CIA operation planned by Bennett. He has denied all claims that he had anything to do with Nixon's resignation or was the "deep throat" source.

But the Watergate fallout was too much, forcing Bennett to move his family to Los Angeles, where he directed public relations for Hughes' Summa Corp. From there, he bounced from one executive job to another, even doing a stint with the Osmonds' entertainment group in Orem, until hooking up with Franklin founder Hyrum Smith in 1984.

After his successful Franklin run — his stock was reportedly worth more than $27 million at one point — Bennett followed his father's footsteps, winning a Senate seat in 1992.

Though he hasn't biked around the state like his Senate challenger, Bennett said the groundwork has been laid for this campaign that has more to do with "continue" than "change," his theme 12 years ago. In the past six months, he's been to every county in the state, except Rich, holding town forums and speaking with residents. He'll begin a series of debates with Van Dam next week.

"This time most of the campaign work has been done," Bennett said. "It's not as frantic as it was in 1992, when nobody knew who I was."

Plenty do now, of course.

He's the aerodynamic beanpole who's barely better looking than Honest Abe.


E-mail: jody@desnews.com