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Washington • Sen. Mike Lee's top aide says that Sen. Orrin Hatch's seniority and experience in Congress are hardly positives — as Hatch touts — but rather negatives that probably will cost him a seventh term.

Spencer Stokes, a former Hatch aide and now Lee's chief of staff, told the news outlet Politico that experience in Washington is a turnoff for Utah conservatives.

"They see there are problems with the federal government and federal budget, and they are asking ... 'Why, if the federal budget is in trouble, do I want someone to go back who in their mind contributed to it?' " Stokes told the news outlet.

"Although in any other circumstance and any other time, running on seniority and your power would be something that you would want to play up," Stokes continued. "In this particular economic time and situation in Washington, D.C., that's actually working against you with delegates."

Stokes did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday. Lee spokesman Brian Phillips said, "Spencer was clearing up false reports that he was working against Senator Hatch. He has spoken to that and is satisfied the issue is behind him."

Stokes' comments to Politico come on top of an already-rocky relationship between Lee and Hatch.

Lee, who topped three-term Sen. Bob Bennett to become Utah's junior senator, has refused to endorse Hatch. Stokes told Politico that he's not opposing Hatch's re-election but offering an "honest analysis."

"I don't think anybody wants to lose or see someone lose. … I don't want to see Senator Hatch hurt in that kind of way," Stokes told the outlet. "I would rather have seen him go out on top and be regarded as the statesman he's been."

Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, offered a swift rebuke.

"I completely disagree with Spencer's analysis," Hansen said Wednesday, calling it "disingenuous" for Stokes to say he's not working against Hatch but then launch into a diatribe about the six-term senator's vulnerabilities.

But, Hansen added, "Spencer is going to do what Spencer is going to do."

Hansen says Hatch will still work with Lee's office and didn't foresee a problem with their ties moving forward.

Of course, Hansen noted, "we'll have to wait and see if Spencer is still there."

Lee, who visited the Utah Legislature on Wednesday, said he wasn't going to respond to Stokes' remarks and "get pulled into this."

"I'm not going to comment on the story or the substance behind it," he said. "I have not gotten involved."

Hatch's Senate spokesman, Matt Harakal, tried to strike a conciliatory chord.

"Senator Hatch greatly respects Senator Lee and appreciates how critical it is to having as able a partner as Senator Lee to fight for Utah each and every day," Harakal said. "Nothing will get in the way of serving Utah in an effective manner." Tribune reporter Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.

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