SANDY — Sen. Orrin Hatch fell a few votes shy of winning the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, forcing him into a primary election for the first time since winning office in 1976.
"I consider it a tremendous victory after what has happened in the past and what we have had to do," the six-term senator said.
Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist also counts his showing against the six-term senator a win.
"Delegates cannot be bought," he said. "When you get out in front of people and explain the vision we have for this country, they buy in. This a great day for us."
Hatch received 59.2 percent of delegate vote to Liljenquist's 40.8 percent after two rounds of voting at the state GOP convention Saturday at the South Towne Expo Center. Candidates need 60 percent to win the party nomination outright. Eight other candidates did not advance after the first ballot.
The winner of the June 26 primary will face former state Sen. Scott Howell, who bested Pete Ashdown at the state Democratic Party convention Saturday.
Howell, who entered the race only 30 days ago, said he believes moderate Republicans and Democrats will join together to defeat the eventual Republican candidate. He lost to Hatch in 2000.
Howell said he knows how to work across the political aisle to get things done, noting he ran three successful races for the Utah Senate in an area that was heavily Republican.
"I can work with both of them," the retired IBM executive said of President Barack Obama and presumptive GOP nominee for president, Mitt Romney.
FreedomWorks, a tea party PAC based in Washington, D.C., mounted a "Retire Hatch" campaign last year, and has spent $700,000 on that effort so far. Though the organization's tactics turned off many delegates, it apparently appealed to enough.
"We're pleased 40 percent chose principle over power," said Russ Walker, FreedomWorks vice president of political and grassroots campaigns.
"Now it's on," he said. "It becomes the 'let's elect Dan Liljenquist campaign.'"
Ogden resident Audrey Tibbitts said she was undecided when she was elected a state delegate last month. She said she heard "strong anybody-but-Hatch" sentiment as she vetted candidates. She ultimately gravitated to Liljenquist because of his energy and business experience.
But "I really wanted a primary. I just want to see them both get their message out," Tibbitts said.
Liljenquist's message will start with his last name. "With a name like Liljenquist, you start out with a deficit. People can't even pronounce it."
Despite his 36 years in the Senate and his multimillion-dollar campaign war chest, Hatch seemed to be playing the underdog.
”Just a few months ago, nobody was going to give me a chance,” he said. But the senator declined to answer questions comparing his experience to that of former Sen. Bob Bennett two years ago. Delegates booted Bennett at the 2010 convention.
Hatch sounded determined when asked about the upcoming primary. “There’s no question, experience counts,” Hatch said, adding he has faith that Utah voters understand that.
Liljenquist considers Hatch's longevity and experience overrated.
"Seniority does not matter unless you're actually able to change the course of the country and actually get bills passed," he said. "I have never bought into the seniority argument here in the state and I won't buy into it there."
Liljenquist said it's time for a new generation of leaders. "We know it to our bones," he said. "The Senate is changing."
Calling himself a "tough old bird," Hatch told delegates he's never been more eager or energized to be a force for change.
"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," the 78-year-old senator said.
Hatch said he is going to be the next chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. "But let me tell you this: I'm not impressed by just the title. But believe me when I say that a strong and experienced chairman can make all the difference in the world."
Republicans would have to win a majority in the Senate in November for Hatch to get that position.
The longtime senator also said he will make sure Hill Air Force Base remains open. "Anybody who thinks we don't have to hold on to Hill Air Force Base every year I've been there is foolish," he said.
Liljenquist attacked Hatch on his campaign pitch that if re-elected he would become chairman of the Finance Committee. Hatch, he said, made the same arguments in 2000 and 2006.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, can get that position if Hatch isn't reelected, Liljenquist said, noting Crapo is a BYU graduate and true conservative.
Liljenquist called Hatch's claim that Hill would close without him offensive.
"No one senator is too big to fail. No one senator is too big to lose," he said.
Hatch has hitched himself to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign the past few weeks, and continued that theme Saturday.
“Mitt Romney can’t do what he needs to do without me,” he said. And if Romney doesn’t win the White House, Hatch said, “you’re sure as heck going to want me back there.”
Liljenquist touted his experience working for Bain Capital, a Boston-based firm that Romney helped found that specializes in turning around struggling companies.
"If there was ever a time for a corporate turnaround team to go to Washington," Liljenquist said. "It's broken beyond belief."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Marjorie Cortez