The Washington Times - April 2, 2012, 03:58PM

Once viewed as the possible next casualty of the Tea Party movement, Sen. Orrin Hatch now sits as the favorite going into the Utah Republican Party’s nominating convention, according to a poll released Monday by the Hatch campaign.

The poll of 335 convention delegates, conducted by Dan Jones Associates of Salt Lake City, found Mr. Hatch leading the field with 62 percent. His closest challenger, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, took 16 percent of the total, while state Rep. Chris Herrod trailed with 5 percent.


“The results of the poll show that Sen. Hatch has a great deal of support among the new delegates to the state convention,” Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen said.

Under Utah’s unique election rules, delegates will choose the Republican Senate nominee at the state convention April 21. If no candidate captures 60 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will face off in a June primary election.

Republican convention delegates tend to be more conservative than voters at large, making incumbents vulnerable to challengers running to their right. That’s what happened in 2010 to Sen. Robert F. Bennett, who placed third at the Tea Party-dominated convention behind two more-conservative newcomers.

But the 4,000 delegates to the 2012 convention have been described as less anti-incumbent than the 2010 pool. The Jones poll found that only 19 percent of those surveyed had served as delegates to the 2010 convention. At the same time, critics noted that the poll included fewer than 10 percent of the delegates.

The poll also found that FreedomWorks, which has spent $600,000 so far to defeat Mr. Hatch, was viewed favorably by 16 percent of delegates and unfavorably by 57 percent. The Hatch campaign has said that the group’s tactics backfired during the selection of Republican delegates at the March caucuses.

Before the convention, the top three Republican candidates will square off in two candidate debates, scheduled for April 4 in Draper and April 16 in St. George. About a dozen Republicans have filed to run for the nomination in a conservative state where the party’s nominee is virtually assured of winning the general election.