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Dan Liljenquist is accusing Sen. Orrin Hatch of dodging debates, saying the six-term incumbent has refused to commit to a single debate leading up to the June 26 Republican Senate primary.
"I will debate him any time, anywhere," said Liljenquist, who has called for a series of eight debates at colleges and universities around the state. The cable news network C-SPAN has offered to broadcast a matchup between the two.
"I think it's clear he doesn't want to debate," Liljenquist said.
Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, fired back at Liljenquist, noting that they already had two debates before the state Republican convention.
"Second, unlike our opponent, Senator Hatch did not quit his elected position to run for office," Hansen said. "He is still a U.S. senator and we have to take a look at the Senate schedule because that is his first responsibility."
Liljenquist pointed out that Hatch took a month off before the convention to campaign among delegates, missing numerous Senate votes.
Liljenquist said that the he thinks Hatch fared poorly in the two earlier debates involving the candidates and called them a "turning point" that allowed Liljenquist to force Hatch into a primary.
"We know Senator Hatch isn't used to debating opponents," Liljenquist said. "We can understand why the senator is reluctant to debate. Still, the people of Utah deserve to see the candidates for public office debate. It's been a proud tradition."
Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said debates provide a venue for voters to see the candidates side-by-side, but there is little upside for someone in office to participate.
"This is kind of par for the course. When you have an incumbent being faced by a lesser-known challenger, the incumbent has really little incentive to want to participate in debates, because things can go wrong there and it can hurt your campaign," Burbank said. "For a challenger, there's very little downside to a debate. All things being equal you're probably going to lose, so what you're trying to do is change the dynamic."
A conservative activist and author, Connor Boyack, created a Web site (http://isorrinhatchmanenoughtodebatedanliljenquist.com) that simply asks: "Is Orrin Hatch Man Enough To Debate Dan Liljenquist?" with the answer a simple "No." But it encourages people to check back to see if Hatch has "manned up yet."
Hansen said there are still 56 days to the primary election and time to set up debates, although he would not commit to a number of debates.
"If we agree to eight he'd up it to 16," Hansen said.