SALT LAKE CITY — After ending U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett's bid for a fourth term, Utah's two remaining GOP Senate candidates are struggling to differentiate themselves now that there's no one in the race to absorb the anti-Washington anger of voters.
Businessman Tim Bridgewater and attorney Mike Lee vaulted from political obscurity by running to Bennett's right at the GOP state convention May 8. Their strategy — hammering Bennett for excessive spending in Washington — worked among the 3,500 die-hard conservative delegates.
But Bennett's upset loss created an unusual problem for the political upstarts in Tuesday's primary: how to stand apart from one another.
Both are newcomers with nearly identical platforms. Each wants to reduce federal spending, overhaul the process of awarding home-district pet projects, repeal the new health care law, replace income taxes with a national sales tax, wean the country off Social Security and eliminate perceived incentives for immigrants to enter the United States illegally. Both say they support term limits.
Since they largely agree on the issues, Bridgewater and Lee have spent most of the past six weeks attacking each other's professional backgrounds.
"The question is about leadership and experience," said Bridgewater, 49, the founder of a consulting firm specializing in emerging markets. "Today there are 58 lawyers in the Senate. There are not enough small businessmen."
Bridgewater's business experience helped him get Bennett's endorsement. Both finalists sought it after polling showed that the 76-year-old Bennett probably would have won the primary because it will have more moderates participating than at the convention.
Lee, 38, is quick to point out that as a partner in a law firm, he also is a businessman. The difference, he says, is that his business specializes in keeping government off the back of his clients while Bridgewater's clients have depended on government for financial aid.
"I'm a lifelong conservative and I've long stood for the idea we need to limit the power of government in order to make life better for Americans," said Lee, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
Lee's commercials criticize Bridgewater for working with companies that accepted federal stimulus money. Bridgewater's ads say it is time to take back the country from lawyers and political insiders.
Their biggest difference is over nuclear waste, which could be a sleeper issue with voters.
A Lee client, EnergySolutions Inc., wants to import up to 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste from Italy's shuttered nuclear power program. After processing, about 1,600 tons would be disposed of at the company's facility in the west Utah desert.
Bridgewater supports legislation that would ban importing foreign nuclear waste. Lee says he would support such a ban only if the EnergySolutions project is exempted. The U.S. House has passed the legislation. U.S. Senate action has been held up by Bennett.
Both primary candidates have racked up endorsements from conservative activists. Each believes he has momentum going into the primary, and a weekend poll indicates the race is still close heading into Tuesday.
The poll released by the Deseret News and KSL-TV found 42 percent of respondents favored Bridgewater and 33 percent backed Lee with 25 percent undecided. The survey was taken from 581 highly likely Republican voters from June 12-17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
At the convention, Bridgewater won 57 percent of the vote — 3 percent more and he would have won the nomination outright.
Lee's campaign contends the convention results are tainted because of a last-minute mailer that went to an unknown number of delegates. The mailer showed pictures of Lee above a Mormon church temple and Bennett above the U.S. Capitol. It asks, "Which candidate really has Utah values?"
Utah is home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and about 60 percent of the state is Mormon, including both Lee and Bennett.
Some Republican delegates found the mailer offensive and thought Lee's campaign was behind it. Before the convention, polling showed Lee in first place. A former Bennett aide later acknowledged coordinating the mailer.
Bridgewater is also crying foul about involvement in the race from outside groups. The California-based Tea Party Express planned radio ads supporting Lee. Local tea party groups have not officially endorsed either candidate and both claim support from the movement's activists.
Utah GOP chairman Dave Hansen said the candidates' sniping at each other is to be expected, but he's not concerned about it helping the chances of the Democratic nominee, restaurant owner Sam Granato, in November. In highly conservative Utah, the Republican nominee is virtually assured victory. A Democrat hasn't won a Senate race here since 1970.
"I feel very confident about both of those candidates. Whichever one wins is going to be the senator," Hansen said.
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