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Utah system puts a unique spin on Senate race

Every handshake counts in Utah's unique nominating system, even for a senator seeking his seventh term.

At Granny Annie's Cafe, just outside Salt Lake City, Sen. Orrin Hatch treated about 70 people to scones and juice -- and nearly two hours of his time -- one morning last week. Nearly all were delegates set to vote for a nominee at Saturday's state GOP convention.

To avoid a primary, Hatch needs at least 60 percent of the 4,000 delegates expected to vote. In spite of Hatch having spent more than $5 million since the beginning of 2011 to defend his seat, the fate of one of the most powerful senators in the country is coming down to just a few hundred votes.

"The process in Utah is either an unmitigated disaster or the best way to have a true democracy," says Tom Chapman, 63, a delegate from South Jordan who hasn't yet chosen a candidate.

"This gives people an opportunity to do something that you can't do with sound bites and ads," Chapman says. "Everybody has a chance to ask the question important to them and (the candidate) can't dodge them.

Hatch and his two key challengers, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod, have been appearing every day, several times a day, at restaurants, in backyards and at school libraries with mere handfuls of people, trying to secure votes one delegate at a time.

Hatch's opponents have spent far less money on the race. Liljenquist has only spent about $225,000 while Herrod has spent just $20,000. By most accounts, Hatch supporters came out in force for caucus meetings last month and overwhelmed the tea party crowd angling for a change, putting him close to that 60 percent threshold.

The candidates generally agree on some of the biggest issues, especially the importance of lowering the national debt and overhauling entitlement programs such as Medicaid and Social Security.

Hatch is urging delegates to back him so he can focus on helping likely presidential nominee Mitt Romney defeat President Barack Obama and on raising money for other Republicans running for the Senate. He emphasizes his congressional seniority, especially his position as top Republican on the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He also has promised to do everything possible to protect Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah and to open more public lands in the state for oil and natural gas wells.

"We can solve the problems, but we need a different Congress. We need more Republicans," Hatch told delegates at Granny Annie's Cafe. "You're here early in the morning and asking questions, which is important. But your real job happens during convention."

Hatch's opponents argue that his support of a lower debt rings hollow because he has served during the time when the debt spiraled ever higher. Even a balanced budget amendment Hatch has sponsored fails to impress his critics because it's never passed the Senate.

Liljenquist, who is generally considered the strongest challenger, is focused on the need for new leadership and has continually assured people that having two freshmen senators from Utah -- Mike Lee, also a Republican, is the other senator -- will not hurt the state. While it is doubtful that he could win the nomination at the convention, Liljenquist understands that if he can swing just a few hundred delegates away from Hatch there will almost assuredly be a primary.

A focus on the threat of entitlement programs to future generations has drawn people, especially tea party voters, to Liljenquist. He also criticizes Hatch for using scare tactics about the dangers of losing a powerful voice in Washington.

"Politicians already walk a fine line between confidence and narcissism," Liljenquist said during a recent gathering with about two dozen delegates at an International House of Pancakes. "They cross that line when they start claiming they're too big to fail."

Utah's caucus system has come under fire since 2010, when three-term Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated at the convention by a tea party surge. Even people who supported the system were concerned then about the ability of such smaller offshoot groups to seize control and direct the outcome.

This year, tea party groups such as FreedomWorks, which has spent more than $600,000 on anti-Hatch mailings and ads, hope to unseat Hatch in a similar fashion. Their chances were dimmed when turnout at the caucuses more than doubled, especially because many of the new attendees were there because of what happened with Bennett.

"The benefit of the caucus system is that it designates people who will do their job and listen. But I didn't like what happened to Bennett, which is one of the reasons I got involved," said Brian Grow, 28, a first-time delegate from Layton who is tentatively supporting Hatch. "It was frustrating to see him ousted by a fringe group that doesn't represent my views."

In Utah, candidates and interest groups are forced to organize at the grassroots level, which can give power to those who may not reflect a majority of the party. That certainly happened in 2010, both with tea party Republicans knocking off Bennett as well as environmentalists who forced Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson into a primary that he easily won.

Defenders of the Utah system argue a key advantage is that it reduces the influence of money in a race.

Hatch's spending -- as well as more than $1 million from outside groups that funded television ads and brochures aimed at keeping the senator in office -- certainly helped drive supporters to caucus meetings.

The outcome of Saturday's convention now comes down to candidate performance, likability, and just how many hands were shaken and minds changed.

"We start with our neighbors, and our views come up from the neighborhood and are carried to the convention," said Doug Smith, 59, a Hatch supporter from Bountiful. "If you want to have your voice heard, this is the system for it."