Sen. Mike Lee sat down with four U.S. Senate candidates on Friday for an informal job interview.

The state’s senior senator paid careful attention to responses from Utah Republicans vying for Sen. Mitt Romney’s seat on topics ranging from congressional spending, foreign policy and his favorite subject, constitutional limitations on the federal government, during a last-minute campaign blitz before returning to Washington, D.C.

Of the 11 GOP hopefuls, Lee joined his former Senate staffer Carolyn Phippen, former state House Speaker Brad Wilson, Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs and Moxie Pest Control CEO Jason Walton for separate delegate town halls ahead of the state convention on April 27.

Lee said he was also willing to appear at the events of other candidates, including 3rd District Congressman John Curtis and lawyer Brent Hatch, but did not do so this weekend because of scheduling conflicts or a lack of communication.

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Lee has not endorsed any candidate yet and said he typically refrains from doing so in federal races in Utah. But Lee left open the possibility he will back someone and implied that Friday’s conversations could play a role in that decision.

“I just want to hear what it is that they’re saying,” Lee told reporters. “I always like to see somebody who’s got innovative ideas … about how to rein in federal spending or how to rein in federal excesses.”

When asked which candidates had asked for his endorsement, Lee said it may have been “all of them” but he couldn’t say definitively.

Several candidates have made self-comparisons to Lee a central talking point in their campaign. Staggs has repeatedly told delegates that by voting for him they would be sending another Lee to Congress and Phippen has gone so far as embracing the title, “Mike Lee in a wig.”

What did Sen. Lee say about the candidates?

In an hourlong Q&A, Lee spoke highly of Phippen, who worked as his regional director and government affairs adviser from 2018-2021.

“She’s a terrific candidate in this race and I really like her,” Lee told a room of several dozen state delegates and primary voters.

The senator joined the room in applause when Phippen said that European countries need to “step up” to provide additional support for Ukraine instead of the United States because “it is their backyard, not ours.”

“They have every right to take whatever position they want to take to defend their homeland. They don’t have the right to more money,” Lee added.

Lee also cheered on Phippen when she said it is the purview of states and municipalities, not the federal government, to police the books found in schools.

Similar to some of the other candidates in the race, Phippen has attempted to frame herself as a constitutional, limited-government Republican in the mold of Lee, who is considered one of the most conservative members of the Senate and who enjoys overwhelming support among the state’s 4,000 GOP delegates.

Phippen is one of the few major candidates who has opted not to gather voter signatures, instead relying completely on the convention nomination system to qualify for the primary ballot. This strategy is also being pursued by Staggs.

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“If you want another Mike Lee conservative, that’s who I am, that’s who I will be,” Staggs told delegates who attended his town hall.

During their nearly two-hour-long meeting, Lee spent 20 minutes quizzing Staggs on issues like inflation, energy and guiding principles.

Staggs told the senator he would filter every legislative decision through the powers and restrictions outlined in the Constitution. In Lee fashion, Staggs pointed to the article, section and provisions of the Constitution that he would consult before every vote.

Staggs — who recently received the endorsement of one of Lee’s closest senate allies, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. — referenced another of Lee’s catchphrases when he committed to oppose omnibus spending bills put together by “the Firm,” or legislative leadership.

“It’s so refreshing to hear a candidate, like Trent did today, talk about these things with such fluidity. You can’t fake that,” Lee said.

At Wilson’s event, which, like that of Staggs and Phippen, was attended almost exclusively by state delegates, Lee answered questions about foreign aid, immigration and making Social Security solvent by raising the age of retirement.

Like Staggs, Wilson said he supported Lee’s REINS Act which would require Congress to approve rules passed by executive agencies that have more than a $100 million impact on the economy.

“We are spending so much money on bureaucracy in this country that is now running our lives,” Wilson said. “There’s a fundamental misunderstanding in Washington right now about the job description of lawmakers; either that or it’s political cowardice.”

Lee was only able to attend Wilson’s event for half an hour.

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On Friday evening, the senator spent two hours interviewing and complimenting Walton, his former Sunday School teaching companion. Walton focused his responses on his business background and Lee’s favorite subject.

“(The Constitution) is literally the document that provides our liberty and our freedom on a day by day and a breath by breath basis and it unlocks the unlimited human potential that we all have within us. And when that’s unlocked and not encumbered by big government and corrupt regulators, amazing things happen,” Walton said.

Lee gushed over Walton’s love for the Constitution, his disdain for spending earmarks and his legal references — at one point joking that he was “tearing up” when Walton cited a 1942 Supreme Court decision, Wickard v. Filburn.

While he didn’t endorse him, Lee said Walton met all the criteria for who should fill Utah’s soon-to-be vacant Senate seat.

“You certainly want someone with a strong commitment to the Constitution. ... You want somebody who’s a happy warrior … and you want somebody who’s excited and energetic about it and who has endured difficulty in his life and wants to share his ability to solve difficult problems with that. And I think you’ve seen that abundantly tonight,” Lee said.

He continued: “I taught Sunday School with him and when he got into the Senate race I didn’t know what kind of candidate he would be. But I do now. And I’m so grateful that I know, because you’re an exceptional and rare talent.”

When is Utah’s Senate election?

The Republican state convention will be held on April 27. Candidates who receive more than 40% of delegate votes, or who have gathered enough verified signatures, will appear on the primary ballot on June 25.

The GOP nominee who emerges from the primary will face off against the nominees from other registered political parties in the Nov. 5 general election.

Other Republican candidates, besides those already named, include certified public accountant Josh Randall, Bookroo founder Chandler Tanner, Brian Jenkins, Jeremy Friedbaum and Clark S. White.

The Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in Utah include mountaineer Caroline Gleich, Archie Williams III and Laird Hamblin.