Rival's campaign says senator's support just proves that Mike Lee is the true conservative.
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Sen. Bob Bennett will throw his support behind Tim Bridgewater, one of the candidates who knocked the three-term incumbent from office, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned.
Multiple sources familiar with the discussions between Bennett and the Bridgewater camp, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, confirmed that Bennett would formally endorse Bridgewater within the next few days.
The Bridgewater campaign would not confirm an endorsement is imminent.
Bennett declined to comment on Wednesday, but did not deny he would be backing Bridgewater, and hinted an announcement was forthcoming.
"I will delay commenting on that until there is a formal public comment," Bennett said.
When asked if an announcement would be made on Friday, Bennett said that, without confirming the event, it would probably be held Monday because Senate votes could stretch into the weekend.
Sources said that Bennett offered his support to Bridgewater shortly after he was ousted at the May 8 state Republican Convention, becoming the first sitting member of Congress run out of office by a wave of anti-Washington animosity and opposition from the insurgent tea party movement.
While Bennett was unpopular with the convention delegates, polls showed they tended to be more conservative than the typical Republican primary voters and he could have won a primary if he had survived the convention.
"The problem with Bennett with this crowd is he's such a mixed bag. People have real mixed feelings about him," said Quin Monson, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. "On the balance, this will probably help Bridgewater more than it will hurt him among those arch-conservatives who cheered when he was defeated."
Mike Lee's campaign manager, Jonathan Reid, said the anticipated Bennett endorsement shows that Lee is the only true conservative.
"Such an endorsement from Senator Bennett further delineates this race as a choice between D.C. business-as-usual or for Mike Lee, who has proven his commitment to principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility," Reid said. "I expect this endorsement will more fully energize and mobilize Mike Lee's conservative grass-roots networks, who are deeply concerned about unlimited government spending and expansion."
Bennett's expected endorsement will come on the heels of an announcement Wednesday that Cherilyn Eagar, who finished fourth in the GOP convention behind Bennett, was endorsing Bridgewater's campaign.
"While Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater are both men I respect and like personally, to me the best choice for Utah is clearly Tim Bridgewater," Eagar said.
Bridgewater received the most GOP delegate votes, followed by Lee, then Bennett, and Eagar with 16 percent. Four other candidates finished with tiny vote counts.
Eagar said she observed Bridgewater and Lee over several months and has attended events hosted by both campaigns since the convention. She said Bridgewater's business background is needed in Washington and praised his "mature statesmanship."
"He may be uncompromising on principles, but he is always willing to listen and to respect those with whom he differs on policies," she said.
Bridgewater said in a statement that he was gratified to receive the endorsement and "It is also a very good feeling to have a close friendship with those who have run alongside you in elections, and I think that speaks to the campaigns we both ran."
Eagar, who has close ties to the Utah Eagle Forum and has been active in conservative causes, lends her credibility among the most conservative Republicans to Bridgewater's campaign.
She supported Utah's constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and opposed the formation of gay-straight alliances in schools. She opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and worked on a failed attempt to banish the International Baccalaureate program from Utah schools, arguing it promoted a United Nations, socialist worldview.
At the convention, Bridgewater sought out Eagar's support and during a radio interview Eagar appeared to suggest he had offered her money for her support. She later clarified that he had asked her to act as an unofficial spokeswoman and said he would help her raise money if she were to run for office in the future.
A Tribune poll prior to the May 8 state Republican Convention showed Sen. Bob Bennett was by far the most popular GOP candidate in the race by respondents identifying themselves as Republican. Thirty-nine percent said they would vote for Bennett, compared to 20 percent for Mike Lee, 14 percent for Tim Bridgewater, 6 percent for Merrill Cook and 1 percent for Cherilyn Eagar. Twenty percent said they were undecided.
Source: Tribune poll, conducted April 26-28 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, among 215 Republican voters. Margin of error, plus or minus 6.7 percentage points.