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Once beleaguered Hatch now has upper hand

Politics » How Utah’s longest-serving senator went from playing catch-up to front-runner status.

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His opponents started late and were less organized.

Chaffetz set aside a Senate bid in August, and Liljenquist, 37, who had hinted about a possible run for months began holding town hall meetings. He didn’t launch his run until December, and neither did state Rep. Chris Herrod, who came in third in the convention race.

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Liljenquist said he deliberated for so long because he has six young children and wanted to make sure his family was ready to jump into the campaign with "our eyes wide open."

So while Hatch was trying to recruit new delegates, Liljenquist focused on introducing himself to the old ones.

Governing magazine named him one of its "legislators of the year" for his approach to pension and Medicaid reform, giving him the credentials to challenge Hatch, even though he lacked the name recognition or political organization.

Liljenquist has hammered Hatch’s longevity, arguing that it’s time for a new generation of leaders. He notes that he was just a toddler the last time Hatch was in a primary in 1976.

Hatch’s team criticized Liljenquist for bailing on his first term in the state Senate and for missing a high number of votes.

He has the backing of Mitt Romney.

None of his Utah congressional colleagues endorsed Hatch, and neither did Gov. Gary Herbert.

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That stung the senator.

He was particularly disappointed with Sen. Mike Lee’s refusal to back him and the public jabs leveled by Lee’s chief of staff Spencer Stokes, who told a D.C. publication that he thought Hatch was going to lose.

"But we did get the one who mattered most, and that was Mitt Romney," Hansen said.

Romney issued that endorsement in September, when Hatch was trotting out the support of conservative personalities like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin in an attempt to head off any challenger.

Since then, Romney cut radio and TV ads for Hatch, which aired before the caucus meetings and filmed a message that Hatch used as his introduction at Saturday’s convention.

"We need Orrin Hatch back in the Senate helping to lead the way," Romney said.

He took a strong right turn.

Hatch’s conservative ratings have spiked on congressional scorecards in recent years, and at the same time, the senator has backed away from some major legislation he has championed in the past, moves that have frustrated challengers as he tries to take away potential lines of attack.

Hatch apologized for voting in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which bailed out investment banks, and now considers the No Child Left Behind education law a failure, saying he voted for it because it was President George W. Bush’s signature domestic bill.

He has rejected a recent proposal to provide legal status to the children of undocumented immigrants seeking a college degree or joining the military, though he has sponsored versions of the Dream Act before. He also voted against a reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, though he was a lead sponsor of the legislation that created the program.

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