SALT LAKE CITY — A new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows Tim Bridgewater has a nine-point lead over Mike Lee in the GOP primary race for U.S. Senate, but Tuesday's election is still very close.
"This is going to be very, very difficult to call," pollster Dan Jones said Friday. "In the old vernacular, this is a horse race."
The June 12 to 17 survey of 581 highly likely Republican voters statewide found that 42 percent planned to vote for Bridgewater and 33 percent for Lee.
Most telling, Jones said, was that 25 percent of those surveyed were still undecided. This close to an election, he said, no more than 15 percent of voters should still be choosing between candidates.
Jones said Bridgewater had a wider lead when polling started late last week, but Lee has gained ground. Bridgewater, who twice has run unsuccessfully for Congress, got the most support from GOP convention delegates.
Both candidates have been advertising heavily on television and radio, and several out-of-state conservative groups have spent tens of thousands of dollars either supporting Lee or opposing Bridgewater.
The Dan Jones & Associates poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. Only voters who indicated a high level of interest in participating in the primary were questioned.
"We're optimistic and we will continue to work hard," Bridgewater said. "Many people will make up their minds in the last two days of the election."
Lee said he has the momentum going into the last weekend of campaigning before Tuesday's election. "I believe I've closed the lead and taken it, and we're going to pull this out."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank cited the "unusual circumstances" of the GOP primary for the large number of voters who have not made up their minds yet.
Bridgewater and Lee eliminated three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett from the race at the Republican state convention in early May. The pair "don't have the standing Bennett did" with voters, Burbank said.
Since the convention, Bridgewater and Lee have been focused on helping voters see their differences. But both are conservatives who are pledging to bring change to Washington, D.C., so that's been difficult, Burbank said.
The poll showed that a majority of respondents rate both Bridgewater and Lee "about right" in terms of their views. But more saw Lee as too conservative, 15 percent, than Bridgewater, who was ranked as too conservative by 9 percent.
The race may well come down to which candidate is judged more likable, Burbank said. But the increasingly negative tone that both campaigns are taking isn't helping with that.
"Anytime you're using these kind of negative ads, these negative attacks, that can work against you," Burbank said. "You're not seen as above board."
Jones said pollsters heard complaints about both Bridgewater and Lee being too negative. "Most of the ads have been negative and we've had a lot of complaints about that," he said.
Lee said his ads are intended to contrast the two candidates. "I'm showing where the differences lie, showing the facts that reflect differences in our backgrounds," he said.
Bridgewater said he hopes voters "will make a judgment on my message and my campaign and not listen to other outside influences who are trying to distort my message," a reference to the political groups advertising and polling on Lee's behalf.
Two groups, the Our Country Deserves Better, a tea party political action committee, and Common Sense Issues Inc., already have spent more than $70,000 on ads and newsletters either supporting Lee or opposing Bridgewater, according to filings Friday with the Federal Elections Commission.
Contributing: Lee Davidson