Two of every three Utahns want to see Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, ousted in his re-election bid next year.
However, all of the challengers seeking to unseat him currently trail far behind him anyway, and are bunched together with none emerging yet as the front-runner opponent, according to a new poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV by Dan Jones & Associates.
But Bennett is in real trouble. Pollster Dan Jones said the last time he saw such weak numbers for an incumbent was when former Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, sought re-election in 2000 amid scandal over his erratic behavior. Cook lost a GOP primary that year to Derek Smith, who in turn lost the general election to Democrat Jim Matheson.
Bennett, 75, who has served 17 years in the Senate, faces no personal scandal, but has been attacked mostly by conservatives who say he is not conservative enough. However, the poll shows that similar percentages of conservatives, moderates and liberals all would like to see Bennett dumped next year, so opposition is not just from the far-right GOP wing.
"There is great dissatisfaction among the general public" about Bennett, Jones said. "But right now, nobody is ahead of him," so "if the election were held today, it's still his to lose."
When those polled were asked if they want Bennett to be re-elected next year, or if it is time to give someone new a chance, just 27 percent favored his re-election and 58 percent wanted someone new.
"That is very low. Normally, that's between 42 and 44 percent" in such questions for candidates considered to have good chances at re-election, Jones said.
The poll also asked about whom those polled would vote for if the election were held today.
It showed that 31 percent favored Bennett. Among other Republicans, Cherilyn Eagar had 5 percent of the support; Tim Bridgewater and Fred Lampropoulos, 4 percent each; Mike Lee, 3 percent; and James Russell Williams III, 1 percent.
Democrat Sam Granato had 14 percent of the support, and 35 percent of Utahns were undecided.
The poll surveyed 408 Utah adults statewide from Nov. 19-23, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
Jones said one sign of the vulnerability of Bennett is that in Salt Lake County, Bennett was ahead of Democrat Granato by just four points, 28 percent to 24 percent.
"And who knows Granato?" Jones said about the Democrat who has campaigned little so far. "That is all 'ABB' — Anybody But Bennett."
The poll was conducted among the general public, but the first real fight for Bennett is among just delegates to the state Republican convention in May. If a candidate receives 60 percent of delegate votes there, he or she proceeds directly to the general election; otherwise, the top two in the process proceed to a primary. Delegates are elected in March at party caucus meetings.
"It will be a real battle," Jones predicted. He said even if Bennett fails to get the most votes at the convention, it's unlikely anyone else in the crowded field can obtain 60 percent of the votes.
"And if he comes out, he'll be pretty hard to beat because of the name identification" among the general public, Jones said, meaning Bennett's toughest test is likely in the convention with smoother sailing afterward if he survives it.
Jim Bennett, the senator's son and campaign manager, focused on the silver lining in the numbers.
"It's very encouraging that Sen. Bennett beats all of his Republican challengers by over 6 to 1, every one of which trails the Democrat. He's the only candidate with enough support to ensure that this Senate seat stays in Republican hands," he said.
Jim Bennett added, "For well over a year, we've been focused solely on the Republican State Convention next May, and no candidate will be able to match the size and scope of our organization." Sen. Bennett spent a huge $545,000 from July through September this year on that organization to court delegates, forms showed recently.
Bridgewater said, however, that all other Republican opponents share one goal: dumping Bennett. "We hope to work together to unseat Bennett," he said.
So as candidates are eliminated one at a time in voting rounds at the convention, that may mean those eliminated would throw support to anyone but Bennett and eventually give a final survivor a shot at winning 60 percent of delegate votes and eliminating Bennett there.
Bridgewater said the poll numbers "show the general electorate is looking for an alternative to Sen. Bennett. I think the numbers for delegates won't be much different. I don't have much name ID at this point, so I'm not surprised at my numbers."
Lampropoulos, who just entered the race firmly last week, said he was thrilled with his 4 percent of support given that he has not really campaigned yet. "For a guy just getting started, I'm thrilled," he said. "The numbers show there is a general mood looking for someone different."
Eagar said the poll findings reflect "what our internal polls are telling us: that the majority of Utahns want a change." She said receiving 5 percent support in the poll among the general public does not reflect what she feels is greater support for her among likely GOP convention delegates, which, she said, is where the real battle now is.
Mike Lee has not yet formally entered the race, although he has said he has considered it. Williams is in the race, but has raised little and campaigned little.
Democrat Granato was pleased to be in second place among the field at this early point. He also says the numbers show that people want a change in leadership.
"Being a U.S. senator is not an entitlement," he said. "I think it's time for a change. I think that many of the people in office now are the ones who got us into the problems this country is in. I'm optimistic that the numbers in this poll show we have a shot to win this."