SALT LAKE CITY – It was an entertaining exchange, as one-man debates go.
Dan Liljenquist, hoping to shock the political world on Tuesday, didn't let Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch's absence this month stop him. The GOP challenger opened his show with the usual call for new leadership in Washington, took questions from a pretend moderator and used a video recording of old Hatch interviews and speeches to provide the incumbent's response.
Hatch had his own play for the cameras the next afternoon. He met Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the Salt Lake City airport and walked with him to an awaiting car as TV stations got the shot.
If there's one political endorsement that matters in Utah, it's Romney's. He graduated from Brigham Young University, oversaw the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and carried more than 90 percent of the vote in the state's GOP presidential primary in 2008.
The two scenes captured the political dynamics at work leading up to Tuesday's Senate primary.
Liljenquist, 37, had no alternative but to undertake some unorthodox moves to get voters' attention, Hatch, 78, let his campaign treasury of nearly $10 million and other GOP leaders make his case for a seventh and final term. Sensing he's far ahead in a state where the Republican primary winner is the heavy favorite in November, Hatch has bobbed, weaved and carefully avoided any mistakes that could lead to a surprise loss.
Hatch's strategy underscores the diminished threat to his 36-year tenure in Washington.
Under Utah's unique system for picking GOP Senate candidates, delegates to the party's state convention get the first crack. If any one candidate gets 60 percent of them, there is no primary. Hatch won 59.2 percent of the more than 3,900 convention delegates in April, 32 votes short of the number needed to avoid a runoff with Liljenquist. He had told activists, "It will be my last six years in the U.S. Senate, but they'll be the best six years and the most critical six years of all."
After watching then-Sen. Robert Bennett go down to defeat at the Utah GOP convention two years ago, Hatch was concerned enough that he spent most of April in the state and skipped two weeks of votes in Washington.
When Liljenquist pressed for a televised debate after the convention, Hatch's campaign said the incumbent's Senate duties in Washington allowed time for only one radio debate. It took place June 15.
"Their strategy is to very much keep him away and out of the state," Liljenquist said. "We're not surprised by that. We think he has a hard time justifying many points of his record."
Kelly Patterson, the former director of the Centers for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said Hatch's strategy makes sense.
"Liljenquist doesn't have a lot of money to draw attention to himself and make a go of it," Patterson said.
Hatch has spent the past two years reaching out to his critics while shifting his votes and commentary to the right. The American Conservative Union gives him a lifetime score of voting right on nearly 90 percent of its issues; the past two years it was 100 percent.
"People around here really support Hatch, but they were discouraged by some of his votes," said Joni Crane, GOP chairwoman for Uintah County in eastern Utah. "They always intended on voting for him, but they wanted to get their pound of flesh. People are sending him a message: We want you there, but we're not happy."
Outside forces played a big role in defeating Republican Bennett in 2010, but have been less united in taking on Hatch. The conservative Club for Growth, for example spent about $250,000 to oust Bennett, but stayed on the sidelines in Hatch's race. Barney Keller, a spokesman for the group, said it views Hatch as a moderate who "has moved to the right to save his skin."
"In a lot of ways we already have had an effect," Keller said. "It's not always the win-loss record."
A political action committee affiliated with the tea party movement, FreedomWorks for America, has spent nearly $900,000 so far to orchestrate Hatch's defeat. Yet even that amount puts only a dent in the financial edge that Hatch enjoys.
As the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch has taken in $3.9 million in PAC contributions from corporations and trade groups. His campaign has spent about $10 million so far, including $1.9 million just in the past two months.
Liljenquist's campaign has spent $614,000, largely due to $400,000 he loaned it. He served three years in the state Senate before resigning to challenge Hatch. He notes that he led efforts to overhaul the state's Medicaid program and its pension system for state employees
Hatch has confronted Liljenquist's calls for new leadership by emphasizing that he's in line to run the Senate Finance Committee if Republicans take control of the Senate. The committee has oversight over tax issues and trade as well as Medicare, Social Security and other big drivers of government spending.
"Let's be honest about it, Utah is going to have a great advantage with me as chairman," Hatch said in the one post-convention debate with Liljenquist, on KSL Radio in Salt Lake City.
Liljenquist's case is that Hatch has used his influence to increase government spending through pet projects, his partnership with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., in creating a $9-billion-a-year health care program for children and his vote for Medicare prescription drug benefits.
"I am running, senator, because you could become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, not in spite of it," Liljenquist said.
Freking reported from Washington.