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McEntee: Why is Hatch saying no to debate?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Alan Mortensen is more than a little peeved at Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Mortensen, who's backing Republican Dan Liljenquist for Hatch's U.S. Senate seat, wants to organize a prime-time debate between the two in Washington, D.C. He'd even throw in a pair of first-class flights and a hall at the Washington Hyatt for a televised, one-hour contest before Utah's June 26 GOP primary election.

But Hatch, facing a primary for the first time since 1976, is just saying no.

The question we as voters need to demand to be answered is, why? I'm betting Hatch, long removed from a serious electoral challenge, is hunkering down and hoping no one notices.

Too late.

Now, Hatch contends he's going to be too busy with Senate business to do more than what he's already agreed to: a debate sometime in late June on Doug Wright's KSL Radio 9-to-noon talk show.

No TV, even on delayed tape. And there's the little problem that a lot of voters are working during those hours. And as Mortensen wrote in a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune's Public Forum: "That Hatch insists on radio as the only medium for debate predates John Kennedy."

Hatch's campaign has said the six-term incumbent will have time for town halls or Q&As when he's in Utah before the primary. That's little consolation to Mortensen, a Salt Lake City personal injury attorney.

"Is he making excuses? Is he hiding? We don't see him much," he says. "I think it's only fair that it's a prime-time debate… Hatch won't have to inconvenience himself and not work for the people of Utah in D.C., and the debate could go on."

Now, Mortensen says he's not rich, just a guy who travels a lot and has banked plenty of Delta sky miles and Hyatt points that would cover airfare and the hall.

He attends caucuses and votes, but his only political involvement comes during the Utah Legislature, when he works on victims' rights.

He's also a self-described "big supporter and good friend" of Liljenquist, not least because of his work on reforming Utah's state employee retirement system and its Medicaid operation.

Mortensen makes a point of saying that he'd also set up a debate between Liljenquist and Scott Howell, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, and with Howell and Hatch if that's how the primary turns out.

"It disturbs me to think Hatch doesn't see the value to citizens," Mortensen says, adding that seeing candidates debate helps voters assess their credibility, persuasiveness and power. That's an argument also made by KSL and the Deseret News in a recent editorial.

Holly Richardson, Liljenquist's campaign manager, said Hatch debated his 1976 opponent, Jack Carlson, on the grounds that voters deserve to see candidates side by side.

"We agree with the 1976 Orrin Hatch," she says.

There's one more thing about Hatch that bothers Mortensen. The senator has accepted donations from Bob Murray, whose Crandall Canyon mine imploded twice in 2007, killing nine men. Mortensen represented the families of eight of them.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.

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