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Democrat Grethe Peterson is getting out of her U.S. Senate race against GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, Democratic leaders confirmed Thursday.

Peterson declined to confirm the rumor at press time, instead scheduling an afternoon press conference at party headquarters. Her campaign manager, John Clark, said he could not confirm the rumors of her withdrawal.But Democrats in the Utah House and Senate said they had heard from her campaign managers that she had indeed decided not to run this year.

Her apparent decision to drop out of the race was described as "the strangest thing I've ever seen," by Hatch's campaign manager, Charlie Evans. But Evans said it wouldn't affect the type of race Hatch is running.

"I don't think it changed the race very much when she got in it," Evans said. "We were planning on a very tough campaign . . . This just puts the campaign off for another two weeks while we wait for the Democrats to come up with another candidate. It saves us some money."

Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, who after lengthy consideration opted not to run for the Senate, was noncommittal Thursday morning about whether Peterson's dropping out will alter his plans.

"I would prefer not to make any comment about my future plans or what impact it has," he said.

Orton said he'd rather make a statement after "I have an opportunity to analyze what the ramifications are." But he did say it's not fair to make a decision to seek re-election in the 3rd Congressional District and "turn around 10 days later and completely reverse yourself."

Peterson, a civic worker and wife of former University of Utah President Chase Peterson, had already announced she was in the race. She had raised $100,000 by Jan. 1 and appeared to have a headstart in winning the Democratic nomination after Orton announced two weeks ago that he wouldn't run against Hatch this year but would seek re-election to his House seat.

Orton ran better against Hatch than did Peterson in a recent Deseret News/KSL poll.

Now the Democratic field is open, with state Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, D-Salt Lake, still considering the race. Howell said he's 60/40 in favor of running for the U.S. Senate and will announce by the end of the session what he'll do.

The name of Doug Anderson is also being mentioned by Democrats. Anderson ran against fellow Democrat Wayne Owens in the 1992 U.S. Senate race. Anderson was out of town Thursday and couldn't be reached for comment.

Hatch seeks a fourth six-year term. Only two other U.S. senators in Utah history have been publicly elected to 24 years in the office.

Peterson was considered a good candidate for several reasons - she is a woman and Hatch is perceived to have some problems with the women's vote, she is LDS and, while she's never run for office before, is considered a moderate.

She also had some liabilities. She endorsed GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt in 1992, not the Democratic candidate. She is also a founding member of Utahns For Choice.