This time of year, hope springs eternal for long-shot political candidates with little money but lots of enthusiasm and plenty of reasons to run.

For men and women who sincerely believe they can provide effective public service in office -- and sometimes defeat entrenched incumbents in nominating conventions or at the polls -- the honeymoon is in full bloom. But with the political parties holding conventions last month and this month, reality soon will set in.For some, that reality will be a heartless end to dreams of seeing their names attached to titles like "U.S. senator," "governor" or "state representative." For a lucky few underdogs, reality could include preparing for a primary election, and perhaps, a general election in November.

"People ask me all the time, 'Why should we vote for you?' " said Timothy Lawson, an Orem building contractor who is challenging Gov. Mike Leavitt for the Republican nomination. "They say, 'Why shouldn't we vote for Gov. Leavitt?' "

For every challenger, the campaign comes down to answering that question: Why should party delegates or voters replace a popular sitting officeholder who has seniority with a newcomer?

Some candidates struggle to figure out the answer to that question. Even if they do, they often run into problems convincing delegates and voters that their answer makes sense. But every political challenger from the smallest Utah House district to the U.S. Senate race and beyond clings to a thread of hope provided by the one-in-a-million chance to bring down Goliath.

Many challengers struggle just to get people interested. Raising money, getting

attendance at a political rally and lining up votes can be twice as difficult for an underdog. Even if people do show up at a challenger's town hall meeting, the candidate sometimes questions their motives.

"Are they coming out to see the one-eyed monster when they see me?" wondered U.S. Senate GOP challenger Greg Hawkins, who is going up against Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Hawkins already has spent 16 months on the campaign trail in what some see as a Quixotic quest. But after holding hundreds of meetings around the state and talking with thousands of state Republican delegates, the attorney and former LDS seminary teacher is convinced he can give Hatch a run for his money.

Hawkins' aim is getting at least 41 percent of state delegates to side with him at the state GOP convention Saturday to advance him to a primary with Utah's senior statesman. In the past, underdogs needed only 31 percent of delegates' votes, but the change -- along with a multiple ballot system of delegate voting -- makes the task even more difficult for a challenger.

"We feel confident we have enough to force a primary," Hawkins said. "If we don't come out of the convention, we'll disappear into obscurity, where we were before."

Other challengers might not go so quietly. The 35-year-old Lawson, for example, is not likely to fade away even if Leavitt manages to oust him at the May 6 convention. Lawson, a former high-school wrestler, has a tenacious and outspoken personality that causes comparisons with one of the country's most unorthodox politicians, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

"I'm as direct as Jesse Ventura," Lawson said. "I'm way more conservative, but I've got his tenacity."

Lawson is conservative enough that he believes Leavitt harbors a "liberal agenda cloaked in sheep's clothing." For candidates like Lawson, the best chance to make some noise generally is at a party convention, where delegates tend to be more extreme than voters in general in their political views.

Two years ago, scripture-citing conservative Jeremy Friedbaum garnered enough delegate support to force a primary election with Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. But in the primary, Friedbaum was easily dispatched by the incumbent.

One benefit of losing quickly for candidates like Lawson and Hawkins would be a return to their jobs. Both candidates have postponed their careers to seek office, and their families' incomes have suffered as a result.

"There are a lot of things we used to do that we just don't do now," said Hawkins, referring to his wife and 12 children. "But there's no boredom."

For some underdogs, months of hard work already are showing signs of paying off. Congressional candidate Donald Dunn, a Democrat who plans to challenge GOP incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon in the 3rd Congressional District in November, has posted favorable poll numbers and even raised more money than Cannon in the last two reporting periods.

"I think the first thing people ask is, do I believe in myself?" Dunn said. "Do I have that fire in my belly, and do I truly believe I can win? Absolutely I do."

That's the sort of believe-in-yourself-against-all-odds attitude common among under-funded and obscure candidates. But Hawkins, ever the optimist, points out that everybody started somewhere. Nobody, not even Hatch, was always an incumbent.

"He's got 24 years of experience and I came out of nowhere," Hawkins said. "I may have come out of nowhere, but so did Sen. Hatch 24 years ago."

You can reach Edward L. Carter by e-mail at carter@desnews.com