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Poll: Sen. Orrin Hatch maintains lead over Dan Liljenquist in GOP primary

U.S. senator maintains GOP support

Dan Liljenquist and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch participate in a debate at KSL in Salt Lake City, Utah,  on Friday, June 15, 2012. A recent poll shows Sen. Hatch having a significant lead over his opponent in Tuesday's GOP primary election.
Dan Liljenquist and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch participate in a debate at KSL in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Friday, June 15, 2012. A recent poll shows Sen. Hatch having a significant lead over his opponent in Tuesday's GOP primary election.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Copyright 2012 Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch has a significant lead over his opponent in Tuesday's GOP primary, former state lawmaker Dan Liljenquist, according to a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll.

Sixty percent of the registered voters in Utah polled who said they will vote in the Republican primary backed Hatch's bid for a seventh term in the U.S. Senate. Just under one-third of the respondents, 32 percent, said they supported Liljenquist.

The poll, conducted June 15-21 by Dan Jones & Associates, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percent.

"Those are very good numbers for the senator," Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said. "It's nice that the voters of Utah, the Republican voters, have that much confidence and support for him."

Liljenquist, who forced Hatch into his first primary in 36 years at April's state GOP convention, said he's not surprised by the poll results.

"Our biggest challenge by far is name recognition," Liljenquist said. "We're going after a guy who has perfect name recognition in this state and has reinforced it with $10 million of spending and big endorsements," including the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.

Hatch has been campaigning hard ever since Republican delegates ended Sen. Bob Bennett's re-election bid two years ago at the party's state convention. Bennett's replacement, Sen. Mike Lee, is a key figure in the tea party movement.

The national tea party organization FreedomWorks, as well as former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, have endorsed Liljenquist, seen by his supporters as a conservative alternative to Hatch.

But while Hatch reported raising more than $10 million since he last appeared on the ballot in 2006, recent Federal Election Commission filings show Liljenquist personally contributed about half of the nearly $800,000 raised by his campaign.

Pollster Dan Jones said Liljenquist has not been able to build on his convention success. There, Liljenquist won the votes of more than 40 percent of the GOP delegates while Hatch fell just short of the 60 percent he needed to become the nominee.

"I just didn't see any movement for Liljenquist," Jones said. "I kept waiting for the idea of not holding more than one debate to cut into some of the lead, but it didn't. I think Hatch really convinced people of his knowledge of the issues."

For weeks, Liljenquist pushed for a series of debates. But Hatch agreed to participate in only one post-convention debate with his opponent, carried live on KSL Newsradio. Hatch would not agree to televise the debate.

University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless said Hatch's age is an issue for some voters. At 78, he is more than four decades older than Liljenquist.

"They believe Sen. Hatch is too old, too unresponsive, too cooperative with the Democratic Party and it's time for him to leave," Chambless said. "They feel strongly about this."

But Chambless said that likely will not be enough to stop Hatch from becoming the nominee.

Jones said Hatch's age did not surface as an issue in the poll. "That really didn't seem to matter," Jones said. "Maybe it's because so many people have religious leaders that age."

The pollster said Hatch has a strong campaign organization that "knew what they were doing and were willing to spend the money." At the same time, Jones said, many voters still aren't familiar with Liljenquist.

"He just isn't known," Jones said. "Those who get to know him like him. I think they see him as a player for the future, not this election. He got his name out there so he'll be viable."

Liljenquist said his campaign staff and volunteers remain motivated and excited.

"Are we confident we're going to win? You know, we'll see. But we're certainly working hard to do so," the former state senator from Bountiful said. "Those are pretty tall odds, but we've really had a great time."

The winner of Tuesday's GOP Senate primary will face Democrat Scott Howell, also a former state senator.

The poll found that in a general election race against Hatch, Howell would win 29 percent support to 63 percent for Hatch. Howell would do better against Liljenquist in November, with 34 percent to 48 percent for Liljenquist, according to the poll.

"I'm really thrilled to see those numbers," Howell said, noting he opened his campaign office just two weeks ago and is already hearing from national groups interested in offering support. "It really shows momentum and that we're starting to pick up steam."

Hansen said Hatch won't slow down, even with a primary election victory.

"The primary is only the midway point," Hansen said. "We take the general election just as serious as we take everything else and we will work just as hard to make sure come November, Orrin Hatch is still the U.S. senator from Utah."

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