If Dan Liljenquist falls short in Tuesday's Utah Republican Senate primary, it won't be for a lack of trying.
The former state senator has waged a no-holds-barred campaign against six-term incumbent Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, saying the veteran lawmaker failed to rein in federal spending, voted to approve nonessential programs without paying for them, and contributed to the $16 trillion national debt through years of inattention.
When Mr. Hatch refused to participate in a televised debate, Mr. Liljenquist held a debate anyway, playing film clips of the senator that purported to show him changing his position on a number of issues.
When the Hatch camp sunk $10 million into a re-election effort that includes massive television ad buys, the Liljenquist side countered with a door-to-door retail campaign aimed at mobilizing voters and creating an under-the-radar buzz for the upstart candidate.
The result has been the most bruising campaign of Mr. Hatch's 36-year Senate career, despite the senator's 10-to-1 fundraising advantage and recent polls showing him with a healthy double-digit lead. Utah's senior senator has bristled at the missives launched against his record by Mr. Liljenquist, as evidenced by several heated exchanges during their only radio debate June 15 on KSL NewsRadio in Salt Lake City.
At one point, Mr. Liljenquist asked the senator whether he should take responsibility for the eruption in federal spending during his tenure in Washington.
"Frankly, no," said a clearly irritated Mr. Hatch. "And I'm offended you keep bringing it up."
Mr. Liljenquist issued a statement later that day, calling it "absolutely baffling that Senator Hatch refuses to take any responsibility for his record."
The race represents the latest in a series of hard-fought Republican primaries between longtime Republican lawmakers and young conservative challengers since the tea party movement exploded onto the political scene in 2009.
Last month Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana became the latest veteran Republican to fall victim to the conservative onslaught, falling in the primary to Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer. Two years ago, Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah was blindsided by the movement, failing to muster enough votes at the state convention even to qualify for the two-candidate primary, which was won by Mike Lee.
Mr. Hatch clearly learned the lessons of the Bennett debacle, pumping millions into his pre-convention campaign, seeking out support from high-profile conservatives and wooing Utah's tea party activists. The senator has benefited enormously from endorsements by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and, more surprisingly, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, widely regarded as the face of the tea party.
Mr. Hatch nearly won the nomination outright April 26 at the Utah Republican Convention, capturing 59.2 percent of the delegate vote and falling just short of the 60 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Mr. Liljenquist took second place with 40.8 percent of the vote.
A poll taken immediately before the Utah Republican convention showed Mr. Hatch leading Mr. Liljenquist by a margin of 62 percent to 20 percent. Since then, Mr. Liljenquist has picked up some undecided voters, but a survey released Friday by the Deseret News and KSL TV shows Mr. Hatch still ahead by a margin of 60 percent to 32 percent.
The discrepancy between the two candidates' ages — Mr. Hatch is 78 and Mr. Liljenquist is 37, meaning he was just 1 year old when the senator won his first term — has played less of a role than some analysts had predicted, said Salt Lake City pollster Dan Jones, who conducted the survey.
"That really didn't seem to matter," Mr. Jones told the Deseret News. "Maybe it's because so many people have religious leaders that age."
The tea party group FreedomWorks, which was instrumental in Mr. Bennett's defeat, ran ads against Mr. Hatch before the convention but has since limited its campaign to mailers and door-to-door efforts on behalf of Mr. Liljenquist.
FreedomWorks political director Russ Walker said that even if Mr. Hatch wins, the relentless attacks on his spending record mean that he's likely to vote as more of a fiscal hawk than he has in the recent past. But Liljenquist spokeswoman Holly Richardson isn't so sure.
"[Hatch] is going to be a six-year lame duck," Ms. Richardson said. "Is he really going to change the habits he's developed over 36 years? I doubt it. I really doubt it."
The winner of Tuesday's primary will face Democrat Scott Howell, a former state senator. In heavily Republican Utah, however, the winner of the Republican Senate primary is more or less guaranteed to coast to a general-election victory.
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