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One of the worst mistakes Utah Republicans have made in my memory was with Bob Bennett — not in electing him to the U.S. Senate in 1992 but by dumping him at the state GOP convention 18 years later.

Bennett and former Gov. Olene Walker may be the best arguments against the caucus-convention nominating system, which the Utah Republican Party is so desperately trying to preserve.

Bennett died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer and the effects of a stroke. Walker died last November.

Both were popular, effective public servants who easily would have won re-election had voters been given a chance to cast ballots for them. But GOP delegates ousted Walker at the 2004 convention and gave Bennett the boot in 2010.

Bennett's defeat came during the tea party wave that year that punished establishment incumbents and derided compromisers. After his successor, Sen. Mike Lee, played a key role in a costly shutdown of the federal government, it became something many Republicans regretted.

During the 2012 Utah Republican Convention, Bennett was asked to give a short speech. He was hesitant, given the hostility he faced from delegates two years earlier. But when he stepped to the podium, he received a standing ovation. More than a few delegates who had voted against him in 2010 realized they had blundered.

The more dysfunctional Washington becomes — with all the partisanship, viciousness and name-calling — the more a gentleman like Bob Bennett is appreciated.

It's no small irony that the three-term senator's decency, his efforts to reach across party lines and his unwillingness to demonize political foes are what ended his electoral career in the fire-breathing atmosphere of the tea party convention of 2010.

While today's GOP-controlled U.S. Senate can't even have a hearing on a Supreme Court nominee, Bennett engineered complex deals that won bipartisan support because of his ability to negotiate with political opponents.

After Bennett defeated Democrat Wayne Owens to win his Senate seat in 1992, the two remained good friends until Owens' death in 2002.

Bennett worked with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on a comprehensive health care bill that enjoyed wide bipartisan backing until President Barack Obama took office a year later and pushed a more sweeping plan we all now know as Obamacare.

Bennett worked with then-Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, to fashion a compromise lands bill in the southwest part of the state that had something for all sides on that contentious issue.

Rather than being lauded for making progress on thorny issues, he was punished by the delegates for not being partisan enough.

The lanky senator also was not afraid to stand up against what he considered bad ideas coming from his own party.

When his Utah colleague, longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch, sponsored a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning, Bennett, in the low-key demeanor he was known for, simply said it was a solution looking for a problem.

He scolded the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature for its 2001 gerrymandering, which many critics saw as the worst example of partisan manipulation in the country.

Bennett labeled gerrymandering the biggest threat to democracy.

On a personal note, he always returned my calls and sometimes would spend up to an hour patiently explaining complicated issues so I would understand them.

Bennett invited me once to join him for lunch in the Senate dining room. I showed up without a tie, which meant I couldn't enter because of the dress code.

"No problem," Bennett grinned. He pulled out an extra tie from his pocket that he kept for such emergencies.

Bennett was a member of the 1951 graduating class of Salt Lake City's East High — an unremarkable observation on its face until you consider that class also included former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, former Utah Supreme Court Justice I. Daniel Stewart, former Dixie College President Doug Alder and Mormon apostle Henry B. Eyring.

Men of stature, all, and the 6-foot-6 Bennett stood as tall, not just physically, as any of them.