SALT LAKE CITY — He may be the most popular modern politician ever among Utahns.
Who? Hint: It's not Gov. Gary Herbert. It's also not Sen. Orrin Hatch. It's definitely not Sen. Bob Bennett who has some image problems, but much more about that later.
It is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, beloved for leading the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics and for being a Mormon who ran for president and likely will again in 2012. Nearly four of every five Utahns — 79 percent — said they have a favorable impression of Romney, according to a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll of registered voters by Dan Jones & Associates.
Longtime pollster Jones said he cannot remember any politician achieving more popularity in Utah. "He won 93 percent of the vote in the Republican presidential primary here," Jones said. He adds that he can't think of anyone more popular in the state, except "maybe President (Thomas S.) Monson," leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At the other end of the spectrum, President Barack Obama is one of the least favorite politicians ever for Utahns.
Only about a third of Utahns — 32 percent — reported a favorable impression of him.
Jones said that maybe the only president he has seen who has done worse here "was President Clinton about the time of the impeachment." He said Obama's popularity dived amid his push for the Democratic health care reform bill.
Meanwhile, the poll shows that while Republican voters generally don't see 18-year incumbent Bennett in the same unfavorable light as the president, he may be unpopular enough to be expelled from the Senate.
Only 50 percent of voters said they have a favorable view of Bennett. Worse, only 18 percent said they had a "very favorable" view of him, which is actually lower than the 19 percent who reported a "very favorable" view of Obama.
It's probably not a good omen for Bennett to go into the state Republican convention this weekend with more Utahns giving Obama a "very favorable" rating than they do for Bennett.
In comparison to Bennett's 50 percent favorable rating, Sen. Orrin Hatch has 65 percent in the poll, Gov. Gary Herbert has 59 percent. Even Sarah Palin (who is controversial, but popular with conservatives) has 53 percent.
Struggling Bennett has a plan to help his poor ratings at the state convention — he convinced Romney to introduce him there before the delegates.
"He's the most popular political figure in the state of Utah, so we're glad to have him on our side," Jim Bennett, the senator's son and campaign manager, said earlier. "He's been a strong supporter and wants to be as helpful as he can."
Jones said it will be interesting to see if that popularity can be transferred. "I don't know that it can. But, boy, Bob Bennett needs it. He's taken a lot of hits. It's the Republicans who are mad at him." His seven GOP challengers contend that Bennett is not conservative enough.
Interestingly, the new poll shows that 48 percent of those who identified themselves as "very conservative" gave a favorable rating to Bennett. It wasn't that much better than the 43 percent favorable rating given to Bennett by those who were "very liberal."
Recent polls have shown that Bennett may not survive the convention.
For example, an earlier poll of delegates showed that 41 percent said they would refuse to vote for Bennett in any round of convention voting. That's trouble because if any candidate achieves 60 percent of the vote in any round, he or she becomes the party nominee.
The convention is scheduled to have three rounds of voting. The first will remove all but the three top delegates. The second round will eliminate one more. The last round will be between the top two candidates. If Bennett manages to get there and 41 percent say they will not vote for him, that would allow the opponent to achieve 60 percent and win the nomination.
The new poll was conducted April 27-28 and interviewed 406 registered voters. It has an estimated error due to sampling of plus or minus 4.9 percent.