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Jason Chaffetz was a kicker on the BYU football team in college, but few expected him to punt when it came to challenging Sen. Orrin Hatch.

His decision leaves Utah conservatives and tea party leaders frustrated with the senior senator and searching for a new champion — although, for now, few appear to be stepping forward.

A Facebook group sprung up Tuesday seeking to convince David Kirkham, a co-founder of Utah's tea party and custom car maker, to run against Hatch. Hundreds of supporters were on the site as of Wednesday.

Kirkham said that he never got into politics with plans to run for office and he is busy with his business, but the outpouring is humbling and "I would have to consider it."

State Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful, has not been shy about his interest in running against Hatch, even when it appeared that Chaffetz was going to get into the race. He has made the rounds in Washington, D.C., meeting with conservative interest groups and has planned a series of town hall meetings across the state.

But he said he still has to decide if a Senate bid would be right for his family — he and his wife have six children under the age of 11. "I won't make a decision until late this fall," Liljenquist said.

Former state Rep. Morgan Philpot has set his sights on a congressional run and says he's still on that path. But he acknowledges there is now "a void" in the Senate race and says that if there were a wave of "draft Philpot" sentiment, he wouldn't rule out a Senate run.

Whoever gets into the race against the six-term senator could have a tough fight on his or her hands. In announcing that he was passing on the race, Chaffetz said a battle with Hatch would be a "multimillion-dollar bloodbath," but thinks someone could tap into voter frustration and upset the senator.

"I think he's vulnerable," Chaffetz said. "He's got a major task ahead of him in convincing Utahns he's still the right guy for that job. I think he's got a serious threat of [Democratic Rep.] Jim Matheson running against him, a serious campaign, and another insurgent campaign on the Republican side."

Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said Hatch has avoided his "most formidable challenger," but that doesn't mean he's punched a ticket for re-election.

"Chaffetz was, by all measures, the most popular politician with the current set of delegates so [his decision not to run] is unqualified good news for Hatch," Jowers said, "but it harkens back a little bit to the Bennett-Shurtleff race."

Jowers is referring to Sen. Bob Bennett's 2010 re-election bid, where it was assumed that Attorney General Mark Shurtleff would be Bennett's toughest challenger. Shurtleff opted not to run. Instead Bennett faced a handful of lesser-known challengers but was still overwhelmed by a wave of delegate frustration.

"Hatch could have a very similar race now," Jowers said. Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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