Having just returned from the 2010 Utah GOP Convention today, the final outcome was not surprising.
That was not surprising. It was a foregone conclusion he was in deep trouble.
After the second round of balloting, when the results were announced and it became immediately apparent Bennett had been ousted, the hall erupted with sustained applause and cheering from the delegates. Mitt Romney's nominating speech notwithstanding, he was greeted with a tepid response when he was first announced. Nothing he could do today could overcome the palpable anti-Bennett sentiment. This was a guy getting his head handed to him on a platter. It was a massacre.
The delegates with whom I spoke throughout the day universally had the same thing to say. Changing the direction of the country is not something that can be done in one race on one day, they told me. However, they were determined to make a start in the runup to the 2012 election.
Bennett was their target. This was not an isolated minority of angry right-wing extremists who made up the lynching party. On the contrary, I was speaking with old friends, moderates and mainstream party faithfuls who have been around a long time. These were not radicals who dumped Bennett, as the national media would have you believe. Like me, they were people who voted for Bennett in the past, but felt disenfranchised because of a nagging feeling Senator Bennett had betrayed them, their values, and their hopes for the future. They wanted new blood, and weren't willing to give him another term extending his age to 83 as a Senator.
It will be a shot heard all over the country way back to Washington, and it will continue to be misinterpreted.
The surprise for me was that Tim Bridgewater made such a strong showing. It's Politics 101 that you have to be likable, and clearly Tim won the hearts and minds of voters. He polled much better than expected. In the first round he garnered 26.84%, the second round 37.4% and the third and final round nearly avoided the primary with 57.25% of the vote. His voice was raspy, an evidence of how hard he's been working in the runup to the convention. He was impressive, he was real, and he was personable. In short, he connected.
The biggest disappointment for me personally was Mike Lee. Lee polled 28.75% in the first round, improving to 35.99% in the second round, and barely made the primary with only 42.72% in the third round. He was defensive, seemed nervous, and had no personal charisma. Rather, he came across like a machine, and seemed totally out of touch. The thought, "Not ready for prime time," went through my mind again and again.
While he and Bennett were slugging it out before the convention, Bridgewater was quietly building support.
Bridgewater's stock was rising rapidly -- the momentum was tangible. It was apparent in the subsequent rounds as he picked up votes from the delegates of the ousted candidates. Bridgewater did something very smart politically, which is why he connected. After the first round he praised Cherilyn Eagar, and picked up many of her supporters (15.84% of the vote) as a result.
After the second round of voting when Bennett was ousted, he praised and thanked Senator Bennett for his many years of service. He picked up almost all of Bennett's delegates. It was Politics 101. Smart.
On the other hand, Lee mentioned how unfairly he had been treated and focused on unfounded criticism that had been leveled against him in the 11th hour before the convention. He sounded like a sore loser even after he was announced as one of the three finalists after the first round. I was dumbfounded. How could Mike be so clueless? It was a huge turnoff, and his sour grapes comments lodged in the hearts and minds of Bennett's contingent.
I spent the day connecting with an old friend, Jim North, who caught up with me early in the day in the Lee hospitality suite. We looked at each other, dumbfounded as Lee supporters, not wanting to believe what we had just witnessed.
Amazingly, after the ousting of Bennett, Lee announced he was yielding his time to Senator Jim Demint (R-SC), and then played a short video of Demint endorsing Lee's candidacy. It was a huge turnoff, and it backfired against him. I was standing among Bennett delegates who were shaking their heads in disbelief. Instead of trying to appeal to the losing delegates, he offered up a video from a sitting Senator? I don't know whose idea that was, but it was a horrible choice, and even worse timing. It did not impress anyone. What the delegates wanted was a connection, a personal appeal from Lee. Instead, they got a detatched endorsement from a Senator very few in Utah know or care about. Terrible miscalculation.
That was the surprise of the day for me, not the Bennett ouster.
On a personal note, I am grateful for the service of Senator Bennett. He just made the political miscalculation of the century.
He couldn't read the "tea leaves."