SALT LAKE CITY — More than half of the 3,500 state GOP delegates meeting in convention Saturday support the tea party states' rights movement, a Deseret News/KSL-TV survey shows.

And that's great news for Mark Williams, a national tea party leader who is in Utah this week.

A Dan Jones & Associates poll, also sponsored by the Utah Foundation and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, found that 55 percent of the GOP delegates strongly or somewhat agree with the tea party and 9/12 groups' stands on small federal government and a return to states' rights.

Williams said while the tea party movement is made up of thousands of small groups — and by its very nature is not organized nor tied to any political party — he is glad to see so many Utahns flocking to its ideals.

"I think we need a coup in the Republican Party. Make it the party of Reagan and Lincoln," not special interests or long-term incumbents, Williams said.

Williams, chairman of the Tea Party Express, was interviewed by phone from a rally in St. George, where he spoke in behalf of 2nd District GOP candidate Morgan Philpot. The Philpot campaign paid his expenses and a "small honorarium" to make up for some of the money Williams isn't making while away from his syndicated radio talk show, Williams said.

Philpot, Ed Eliason and Neil Walter face off Saturday in the state GOP convention in the Salt Palace to run for the seat held by U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

If none of the three gets 60 percent of the delegate vote, the top two will go to a June 22 Republican Party primary.

GOP chairman Dave Hansen says he's unsure if tea partiers really are a majority of the state GOP delegates. But Larry J. Jensen is one tea partier who specifically decided to run for a delegate spot.

While Jensen is a Republican, he believes, especially on the national level, that incumbents and party leaders have gotten seriously off track.

"We need to stand on principles, not on personalities," Jensen said.

The tea party movement shows that "you really can make a difference, if you're willing to go to bat for conservative" ideals and candidates, he said. The 9.12 Project is spearheaded by talk-show host Glenn Beck.

Jensen's priorities are reflected in the delegate poll. Asked to rank the top issues, the delegates listed "protecting states' rights" as No 1. That is followed by creating a business-friendly economy, protecting gun rights, allowing mining and grazing on federal lands in Utah and preventing illegal immigration.

"States' rights are a huge issue," Williams said. Thirty-eight state legislatures are taking a stand for states' rights, and that is paramount, he said. "At 37 states you can change the U.S. Constitution" to better control the power of the federal government, he added.

But before that laborious task is undertaken, longtime congressional incumbents have to be sent packing, Williams said.

"Having people who rode to school on dinosaurs in Congress is not a good idea," he said.

Besides bringing new priorities to the Utah convention, many of the GOP delegates are acting differently this year, said Jensen, who served as a state delegate in 2004 and in the mid-1990s.

"I and a number of other delegates aren't taking any gifts, any meals" from GOP candidates trying to get their convention vote, Jensen said.

Jensen knows. He survived the big giveaways of 2004 — where one gubernatorial candidate picked up hotel rooms for rural delegates coming to the state convention, paid for a concert the night before the convention, even invited a select number of delegates to a Utah Jazz shoot-around.

Stopping big, special-interest money in federal and state races is key to change, Williams said.

"Washington, D.C., is a company town, for politicians and media alike," he said. "You spend enough time there, and you become the town's fabric, won't upset your friends. They are all entrenched."

e-mail: bbjr@desnews.com