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Does Tea Party want to defend or change Constitution?

By Jim Acosta and Bonney Kapp, CNN
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The Tea Party's sure thing?
  • Mike Lee is vocal defender of Constitution, but he has criticized some amendments
  • Lee, Utah's GOP Senate candidate, backs amendments to mandate balanced budget
  • Lee says it's OK to change Constitution to "make it more true to the American dream"
  • Lee's Democratic challenger, Sam Granato, says his opponent is too extreme

Salt Lake City, Utah (CNN) -- Utah's Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Mike Lee, is a vocal defender of what's become the bible of the Tea Party revolution: the U.S. Constitution.

"I hereby pledge to you that I will not vote for a single bill that I can't justify by the text and original understanding of the Constitution," he promised voters at a Tea Party rally this year.

But Lee, an attorney and former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, has advocated some breathtaking changes to the Constitution.

During his Tea Party-backed Senate campaign, Lee said he would support legislation aimed at altering the 14th Amendment's guarantee of automatic citizenship for people born in the United States. Advocates for tougher measures against illegal immigration say such a change would discourage undocumented workers from having children in the United States.

Lee also has publicly criticized the 17th Amendment, which allows voters to elect U.S. senators, a right once reserved to state legislatures.

"People would be better off if senators, when they deliver their messages to Washington, remember the sovereignty of the states," he said. The Republican conceded the amendment is unlikely to be scrapped "in our lifetime."

In the age of runaway deficits, Lee also backs new amendments mandating a balanced budget and imposing term limits on members of Congress.

The Constitution was made to be amended from time to time.
--Mike Lee, Utah's Republican Senate candidate
  • Mike Lee
  • Tea Party Movement
  • Bob Bennett
  • Utah

When asked if these proposed changes conflict with his stout defense of the Constitution, Lee told CNN, "Not at all. The Constitution was made to be amended from time to time. Sometimes we have to change it to make it more true to the American dream."

Lee's views are important as he is as close as the Tea Party gets to a sure thing to winning a Senate seat. His conservative views are straight out of the Tea Party movement's playbook and align with those of many Utah voters, who haven't elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1970.

The fiscal conservative has not shied away from making controversial statements about the so-called "third rail" of American politics -- Social Security -- stating at a GOP candidates forum in March: "It's a really unpopular thing to be the bad guy, to come along and say, 'We have to roll that back, we have to phase it out.' "

During an interview with CNN, Lee backed away from his talk of phasing out Social Security, even though his campaign website still says he favors a "systematic overhaul" of the program.

Lee's Democratic challenger, Sam Granato, said that his opponent is too extreme even for conservative Utah.

Granato, a Salt Lake City food distributor, is considered a long shot candidate by most accounts. He is hoping to lure over moderate Republicans who may still be mad at the Tea Party for backing Lee, who defeated GOP Sen. Bob Bennett in a bruising nomination battle.

One of Granato's high-profile supporters is Bennett's son, Jim Bennett.

The younger Bennett now volunteers for the Granato campaign and criticizes the Tea Party movement as more "emotional" than "rational."

"I remember talking to a Tea Party leader who said, 'I love Bob Bennett, but I won't vote for anybody in Washington who's been in office more than eight years,' " Bennett said.

He recalled, "They wouldn't talk to us. When we tried to get Bob Bennett to talk to the Tea Party, they said, 'He is not welcome here. He will be booed if he comes.' "

The Tea Party's decision to pick Lee over Bennett will most likely pay off in a Republican victory. How Lee's conservative Tea Party views will go over in the Senate, where comity sometimes trumps partisanship, is an open question.