SALT LAKE CITY — Besides U.S. Senate candidate Dan Liljenquist and a receptionist, there is no one in the Senate hopeful's sparse campaign headquarters on the 11th floor of a downtown office building on a recent morning.
No supporters working the phones. No staffers plotting strategy.
Liljenquist sits alone behind a desk, his MacBook Pro open and his LDS scriptures just closed. Most mornings find him alone making phone calls and doing media interviews over the phone or via Skype.
Asked about the lack of activity, the former state Republican senator explains that all of his campaign volunteers walk their neighborhoods or work from home. They've placed 10,000 yard signs and distributed 90,000 door hangers.
"We just have some very, very passionate volunteers," Liljenquist said.
Liljenquist abounds with enthusiasm about his prospects for dethroning longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch, saying he's building name recognition and closing the gap to single digits, though he offers no poll results to back up the claim.
The Hatch campaign, he says, is trying to keep the race quiet.
"He's spending his time in D.C. hanging out at The Monocle," Liljenquist says, referring to a favorite Hatch eatery where he holds fundraisers. "We are meeting with voters. We'll see which strategy works the best."
Liljenquist has pushed Hatch to debate him since the state Republican Party convention in April, and it finally happened Friday. The two exchanged barbs on KSL Radio for an hour, Hatch touting his decades-long experience in the Senate and Liljenquist citing that as the reason he must go.
When the issue of taxes came up, Liljenquist said he favors an increase on businesses such as General Electric. He said he wants to broaden the base, get rid of loopholes and lower the overall tax rate.
"Everybody should pay something," he said.
Meeting the public
Back on the campaign trail earlier this month, the 37-year-old father of six ages 2 to 12 has a lunch meeting at the Salt Lake Christian Center with more than a dozen evangelical pastors before making a swing through southern Utah. He said it was his 260th campaign event since announcing his candidacy on Jan. 4.
He drives his Buick LaCrosse or self-designated "old guy" car to the event himself. An empty Diet Coke can sits on the passenger seat, while two bags of sunflower seeds lay on the floor.
The Rev. Greg Johnson of the Standing Together ministry said he invited Hatch but the campaign told him the senator would be in Washington. Evangelicals make up less than 2 percent of Utahns, Johnson says, but notes they have a big voice in national politics, accounting for 26.3 percent of voters.
Liljenquist talks and answers questions for more than an hour, addressing everything from his childhood to his faith to his politics. He calls each pastor by name as he takes their questions, including the ones he just met. Every now and again one of them lets out an "amen" to something the candidate says.
During his speech, Liljenquist shares details about a 2008 plane crash in Guatemala that nearly killed him. He shattered both legs but was among three survivors. Eleven others died.
"You don't have time to waste. Life is very, very fragile. Every moment should count," he said.
Liljenquist said that near-death experience provides the context and backdrop for what he wants to do politically. "What I've tried to do in my service is tried to make decisions that matter now and will matter long after I'm gone," he said.
He doesn't put any stock in Hatch's argument that seniority and experience get things done in Washington.
A few years ago, a state replaced a 24-year incumbent and two years later an 18-year incumbent.
"It went from the most senior delegation to the youngest. But they injected new life into that state and that state went further and faster than any other time in the history of the state. One of those guys in his very first term put the entire labor movement on its heels.
"You know what state that was? It was Utah. In 1974 we got Jake Garn and in 1976 we got Orrin Hatch."
Experience of his own
State Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, a longtime Hatch supporter, shifted his allegiance to Liljenquist. He said his former colleague can be effective as a freshman, citing his work in the Utah Legislature on state pension and Medicaid reform. Hillyard said he's impressed with Liljenquist's ability to understand issues, numbers and solutions.
"He's the type of person that is pushing but not pushy," he said. "You don't feel like he's crowding you."
Liljenquist, who is endorsed by former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, said should he become a senator, he would not serve more than three terms. Voters, he said, are looking for leadership, not career politicians. That's why Mitt Romney's support of Hatch somewhat puzzles him.
"It's what Mitt Romney has endorsed that interesting to me. The ideas he has endorsed are that Washington will not solve its own problems, that career politicians are the problem in Washington," he said. "You can't get more career politician than Sen. Hatch."
Sen. Orrin Hatch
Occupation: U.S. senator since 1977
Politics: Republican; past chairman Senate Judiciary Committee; ranking member Senate Finance Committee
Education: B.S. history, Brigham Young University, history; University of Pittsburgh Law School
Family: wife, Elaine; six children
Residence: Washington, D.C., Salt Lake City
Occupation: formerly worked at Bain Consulting, Affiliated Computer Services, Focus Services; most recently consulted for Laura and John Arnold Foundation on pension reform
Politics: Republican; Utah state senator, 2009-2011, passed bills on Medicaid and pension reform
Education: B.A. economics, Brigham Young University; University of Chicago Law School
Family: wife, Brooke; six chidlren