Keith Johnson, Deseret News
U.S. Senate candidates from Utah recite the Pledge of Allegiance prior to a debate at Provo Library on Monday.

PROVO — Republican U.S. Senate candidates Tim Bridgewater, Merrill Cook, Cherilyn Eagar and Mike Lee repeatedly and emphatically agreed on one thing during a debate Monday: Voters should dump three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

So Bennett vigorously tried fending off tag-team attacks on topics ranging from immigration to entitlements, bailouts and Bennett's money from special interests during a nearly two-hour debate before the Utah County Republican Women.

"This election is going to be a referendum on Sen. Bennett," Bridgewater said. "The question is whether we should return Sen. Bennett to Washington, D.C., or if we should consider electing one of the challengers. If we elect incumbents, nothing will change."

Eagar said the Club for Growth, a national conservative group that has been spending big money opposing Bennett, is even trying to organize all the other Republicans into an anyone-but-Bennett team, although she said she is denouncing that effort.

She said people associated with the club asked her to sign a pledge to support any candidate but Bennett, meaning that if she is voted out in early elimination rounds at the GOP convention that she would be expected to throw her support behind any other candidate who signed the pledge.

"This is exactly the type of dirty dealing that has ruined American politics," Eagar said. "It's an attempt by an outside group to manipulate a Utah election."

Bennett told the Deseret News he is not worried by such maneuvering. "Our polling shows a fairly substantial amount of 'Bennett is our second choice' " sentiment among past delegates, he said. He believes many delegates would move to support him if their favorite loses in early elimination rounds.

Regardless, the four candidates opposing Bennett for the GOP nomination spent most of their time aiming at Bennett on Monday.

Eagar attacked Bennett for taking large campaign contributions from recipients of the banking bailout. "You've got to follow the money, and then you will find the corruption," she said.

Bennett defended himself by saying he proposed reform of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — two of his big contributors — reforms he said they did not particularly like. He said his bill may have avoided a meltdown in the banking industry and the later need for bailouts, but Democrats filibustered it to death.

When attacked for earmarking local projects in spending bills — even bills he voted against — Bennett said, "You're darned right I did. Because if money is going to be spent, let's get it spent on intelligent things," adding if it isn't spent in Utah, it would be "spent in Delaware or Indiana."

Lee said that is like a vegetarian deciding to eat a bacon cheeseburger "because that particular cow and that particular pig are already dead." He said he would set an example and not take any earmarks for local projects. "I won't take it on my watch — not one more dime."

When Eagar said she would oppose any earmarks, Bennett countered, "She wants to give the power to Obama" to determine where all spending would occur instead of Congress.

Cook said both extremes on earmarks are wrong. He said Congress should decide where money is spent including using wise earmarks, but all earmarks should be debated openly and not dropped into bills secretly.

The challengers also attacked Bennett on immigration. Lee, for example, said, "I would vote against any form of amnesty. I wish I could say the same of the incumbent senator," who Lee said did vote for it.

Bennett denied that, saying "amnesty is in the eyes of the beholder." He said he voted for "heavy fines and legal penalties on anyone here illegally regardless how they came" before allowing them to stay in the country.

Republicans will hold caucuses at the end of this month to choose delegates to the GOP state convention. If a candidate receives 60 percent of votes there, they move to the general election; otherwise, the top two candidates will face off in a primary.

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