PROVO For the past dozen years, nobody has found the answer to a question that has perplexed anyone seeking an alternative to Utah's 3rd District congressman.
Is there a formula to defeat Chris Cannon?
A conga line of fellow Republicans has tried and failed to oust Cannon since he won the seat for his party in 1996 by defeating incumbent Democrat Bill Orton.
After six terms, Cannon now faces what may be the stiffest challenge yet on Saturday at the Utah Republican Convention at Utah Valley State College.
If one of his latest challengers has discovered an answer to the riddle, Cannon could lose his seat in Congress by midday Saturday. If not, one of the four might force Cannon into a primary for the third straight election cycle.
Cannon flew home from Washington, D.C., Thursday night to join a creative flurry of last-minute campaigning. He will meet today with delegates for breakfast and dinner and in a cottage meeting at his Mapleton home tonight.
Meanwhile, David Leavitt's campaign this week sent popcorn and root beer to each of the more than 1,100 delegates who will vote at Saturday's convention, and Jason Chaffetz mailed just as many handwritten postcards.
Cannon's campaign deployed a new strategy this year, creating customized information packets for as many delegates as possible.
"We feel good we're delivering information and Dave is delivering popcorn and root beer," Cannon campaign manager Ryan Frandsen said.
Leavitt said the snacks were an effort to thank delegates for putting up with six long weeks of being bombarded by candidates. The token recalled a similar treat provided to delegates two years ago by John Jacob. Jacob invited delegates to a free screening of "Mission: Impossible 3" on the eve of the 2006 state convention.
The next day, more delegates voted for Jacob than Cannon, but Cannon survived the scare and defeated Jacob in the Republican primary.
Chaffetz condemned both ideas, saying 3rd District delegates and voters have been starved for serious debate for years.
"Those tricks are obnoxious, petty attempts to buy votes, and I refuse to participate," Chaffetz said. "I think they're offensive. I promised the delegates at the beginning of the race I would not buy them meals. I can't ask someone for a donation, to turn around and buy someone else popcorn and root beer. It's a Republican principle."
Chaffetz has said he is more fiscally responsible than Cannon and Leavitt because their campaigns are in debt while he has the money to run what he called 500 substantive television commercials this week.
Leavitt told delegates Saturday at a Provo debate that he is similar to Cannon but a better leader and diplomat, an appealing prospect to many Republicans who in the past have chafed at Cannon's style.
Cannon was ready for that, delivering what Leavitt, Chaffetz and Frandsen all agreed was a strong debate performance.
"We've gotten him to be a little bit more concise," Frandsen said.
Chaffetz said Thursday that he won the debate, however. His strategy has been to outflank Cannon at the convention, where if one candidate earns 60 percent of the vote, he automatically wins the Republican nomination without a primary.
"I think there's a great opportunity for me to get 60 percent on Saturday," Chaffetz said. "I have better issues and a better organized campaign."
It's unlikely any of the 3rd District candidates could win 60 percent of the vote on the first ballot on Saturday with such a strong field. Once one of the Big Three Cannon, Leavitt and Chaffetz is eliminated, a second ballot could decide the nominee.
If none of the candidates receive 60 percent, the top two will go to a June primary.
Leavitt said he didn't have a prediction.
"One of the three of us is going to drop (off the ballot)," Chaffetz said. "When that happens, I think I can go over 60 percent. I think there will be a change Saturday. The delegates have wanted to make a change for a long time, but they haven't been able to find anyone they felt they could believe in."
To that end, Chaffetz sent out the handwritten postcards.
"It took me a good month" to write 1,100 notes, he said. "I went through eight Sharpies, but those are real. I personally wrote all of them. I have terrible penmanship as everyone now knows."
Republicans who challenge Cannon face a real dilemma because their audience changes dramatically from the party's convention to its primary. A 1990s Brigham Young University study showed that convention delegates in Utah are far more conservative than primary voters.
Jacob learned it was still true two years ago, when he outpolled Cannon at the convention and then lost soundly to Cannon in the primary.
"Nobody is going to beat Chris Cannon in a primary by being perceived as more conservative than he is," BYU political science professor Quin Monson said. "That makes it tricky, because you may need to be perceived as more conservative to beat him at convention.
"John Jacob ran to Cannon's right and didn't make it," Monson said. "The problem with that comparison was that John Jacob wasn't that strong a candidate. He came off as not professional, not quite ready for prime time."
At Saturday's debate, the moderator asked the candidates to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being liberal and 10 being conservative.
Chaffetz and Cannon gave themselves 10s. Joe Ferguson said he was a 15. Leavitt said some definition was needed, but rated himself a strong, conservative 8.
"David Leavitt may be trying to hedge his bets, not going on the record as being more conservative than Chris Cannon," Monson said. "If I'm perceived as more conservative than he is, it limits my appeal with primary voters."
Leavitt has made it a point to tell reporters that his strategy was to prepare for a primary. He took pains Thursday to say that he wasn't packaging himself with his answer, that he established before the race what his positions were and promised he wouldn't change them.
"What I have is a message I believe Utah voters will grab onto," Leavitt said. "Time will tell whether that includes delegates or primary voters. I hope primary voters will get the opportunity to hear it."
If they do, his 8 kept him from going on the record as more conservative than Cannon, Monson said. That could help if the formula to beat Cannon turns out to be a more personable candidate with a similar ideology.
Chaffetz is wrapping up 16 months of preparations for the convention with meetings yesterday in West Jordan and Lehi and more today at the Hampton Inn across the street from UVSC, where he will court rural delegates who are spending the night in town before the convention.
Leavitt said he had 23 meetings lined up this week, 14 of them yesterday and today ranging from West Valley City, West Jordan and South Jordan to Pleasant Grove, Saratoga Springs, Provo, Orem, Springville, Spanish Fork and Payson."This is a tough race with aggressive opponents," the Cannon campaign said in a prepared statement. "Mr. Leavitt has a famous brother, a well-known name and a lot of money and Mr. Chaffetz has been running hard for more than a year. And a lot of poeple know Joe Ferguson. But come Saturday, we believe the delegates will understand that Chris not only has the experience to keep fighting for them in Washington but that he is the kind of conservative the 3rd District really wants."