Candidates with little money face a more level playing field as they target just 4,000 delegates who control their fate and most candidates say they are confident they could win if they can just get enough delegates to listen. Hatch is taking four weeks off from Congress to play defense and do the same personal-touch campaigning.
That led to free meals Monday for Cutler, of Murray, who started the day as a pledged Hatch delegate, and Price, of West Jordan, who started it uncommitted. After hearing Hatch and Liljenquist in small groups, both ended up undecided and torn by their choice.
"I'm more undecided now," said Cutler, whose support for Hatch dates back to the six-term senator's first election in 1976, when Cutler was also a state delegate. But he said Liljenquist is more enthused and seems to have a clearer vision of how he could change Washington. "He [Hatch] has done a tremendous job for the state. But maybe he's so frustrated by what's gone on back there that he's having a hard time seeing a vision now."
Price said she, too, was "more charged and excited about the future when I listened to Liljenquist than Hatch, and I want to be excited and not just hear stories about what Hatch did 25 years ago." But she said Utah may need Hatch's seniority and experience.
Hatch's campaign released a Dan Jones & Associates poll on Monday that shows he has a big head start as the person-by-person campaigning among delegates hits full stride before the April 21 convention.
The campaign reported that 62 percent of 335 delegates polled favor Hatch, 16 percent favor Liljenquist, 5 percent favor state Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Orem, and 17 percent are undecided. A candidate who wins 60 percent of the vote at the convention proceeds directly to the general election. Otherwise, the field is narrowed to the top two candidates for a primary.
"I am finding people are really excited when I talk to them," said Liljenquist, a former state senator. "Most of the people who listen to me say afterward that they are thinking about me even if they came in supporting Hatch."
It probably helped Monday that after brief introductions, Liljenquist managed to remember the names of the nine delegates at his breakfast and tailored answers to their questions on how his stands would affect their professions.
Liljenquist has held 45 small-group meetings with delegates since the March 15 caucuses and plans at least that many more before the convention. He also is phoning delegates in spare moments.
Herrod said he held three delegate events Monday and added that delegates who listen to him tend to support him. "But we only have five weeks between the caucuses and convention," he said. "If I spend just 10 minutes on the phone with a delegate, there isn't enough time to talk to them all so we try to get them to come to small-group meetings."
Herrod said he doesn't have enough money to buy them meals as an enticement, so delegates have to pay for their own when he has meetings in restaurants. "But maybe that shows them I really am frugal," he said, after a lunch gathering Monday at CJ's Restaurant in Millcreek with 17 delegates.
Delegates at separate Monday meetings sponsored by Hatch, Liljenquist and Herrod often took notes and peppered the candidates with tough questions on everything from immigration to the economy, national debt, energy, public lands and judicial appointments.
"The question is: Who do you want to represent you?" Hatch asked at a South Jordan meeting. "Do you want two freshman senators, or do you want somebody who really is in a position of power who could help Mitt Romney right from day one or if [President Barack] Obama, heaven forbid, gets elected, can take him on?"
Liljenquist told delegates at his breakfast in Midvale, "The whole race comes down to one question: whether or not seniority is so important that you feel forced to vote for the same system and same people who got us into this mess or if you believe, like I do, that we need leaders in Washington to change things around."
Herrod waved a copy of the Constitution at a lunch in Millcreek and vowed to protect it something Republican Mike Lee often did as he successfully campaigned against Sen. Bob Bennett two years ago before the convention dumped the three-term incumbent.
"Seniority is not in the Constitution," Herrod said. " ... Passion can overcome seniority."
Below the top three candidates, the current grass-roots campaigning is more difficult.
"I thought the system would level the playing field more than it has," said Tim Aalders, a radio talk show host who is another Senate hopeful. He said delegates are not as quick to respond to candidates other than Hatch and Liljenquist because of media attention on them as front-runners. So he joined with Herrod and gubernatorial candidate Ken Sumsion on Monday to hold a joint event trying to attract delegates to hear all three at the same time. Seventeen came.
"Also, the Republican Party charges a lot for its events," such as county conventions, "while it gives incumbents automatic access," Aalders said, claiming that hurts newcomers without a lot of money. He said the party is also pushing to include only the top three candidates in debates. "They say that is based on polls, but my name wasn't included in the poll."
Aalders added, "But I still keep fighting. ... About 60 to 70 percent of the people who listen to me say they support me. So that gives me a reason to keep going, and it gives me a chance."
The 10 GOP Senate hopefuls
Orrin Hatch (inc.)
William J. "Dub" Lawrence
Loy Arlan Brunson
David Y. Chiu
Source: Utah Lieutentant Governor's Office