Prospects appear rosy for Sen. Orrin Hatch to again win his party's nomination in a primary fight, with a new Salt Lake Tribune poll showing that 62 percent of Utah Republican voters support him over the nine GOP hopefuls challenging him.
Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist is favored by 20 percent, state Rep. Chris Herrod is supported by 6 percent and 12 percent are undecided. That's according to a poll of 422 likely primary voters, conducted April 9-11 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. The poll did not specifically ask about the seven lesser-known candidates in the race.
Hatch hopes for similar support among the 4,000 delegates to the state GOP convention on Saturday. If he can win 60 percent of delegate votes there, he avoids a primary and goes directly to the general election. Otherwise, the top two candidates will face off in the June 26 primary election.
"Your poll of [GOP] voters matches almost exactly the results of our polls of just delegates," said Dave Hansen, campaign manager for Hatch.
His campaign released two polls of delegates earlier this month. The first showed 62 percent support, and a later one showed 61 percent. A super PAC supporting Hatch had released a different poll showing only 50.5 percent support for the senator. A Utah Foundation poll shows Hatch with 61 percent delegate support. PACs opposing Hatch said their polls of delegates had been shifting dramatically, suggesting that many delegates had not firmly made up their minds.
"The senator would like to win the nomination outright at the convention. But if that doesn't happen, we're well prepared for a primary. And obviously, people in Utah strongly support the senator, and we feel very confident," Hansen said. "But anything can happen at the convention. I think everything now is down to the presentations of the candidates at the convention to determine whether or not there is a primary."
In a separate poll question, 83 percent of all Utah voters Republican and Democrat said Hatch was doing at least a fair job in Washington, D.C. Fourteen percent rated his performance as excellent, 44 percent as good and 22 percent as fair. Even a majority of Democrats gave Hatch high marks 71 percent said he was doing at least a fair job.
Liljenquist said the Tribune poll of all voters simply "shows that Senator Hatch has universal name recognition. Most voters don't recognize me or Chris Herrod yet."
That is precisely what Utah's caucus and convention system is designed for, he said.
"Guys like me and Chris Herrod who don't have a lot of money can meet with the delegates personally and get to know them," and persuade them.
Among respondents in the Tribune poll was Gary Hawes of Herriman, who also happens to be a state delegate. Hawes previously helped conventions force 12-year incumbent U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon into a primary that he lost in 2008 and to dump outright 18-year incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010. So one might think that Hawes would also seek to defeat 36-year incumbent Hatch this year but he's not.
"I'm not a pro-Hatch person. But he keeps making the argument that his seniority would make a difference for Utah, and nobody has trumped that. If somebody does, I would probably move over to them," Hawes said.
He added that he has attended events to listen to Liljenquist, Herrod and others challenging Hatch. "But I'm not excited about any of them," Hawes said. "I was excited about Jason Chaffetz" in 2008 when he beat Cannon, "and by Mike Lee two years ago" when he replaced Bennett.
"Without that excitement, I'm staying with Hatch," Hawes said.
David Whittle of Springville, another respondent to the Tribune poll, is a first-time Republican delegate. He said his caucus meeting had triple the attendance of previous years and that most were there specifically to vote for a delegate who pledged to support Hatch.
"I think most were disheartened at what happened to Bob Bennett last time," he said. "I feel obligated to precinct members who dictated to me that's the way they wanted me to vote." But Whittle said he has listened to other candidates to ensure Hatch is worthy of support.
"I think most people are willing to send back anyone who is doing a good job," he said. "I hope Hatch works with Mitt Romney to reverse the avalanche of debt we're facing, and I'd also like to see him use his experience to fundamentally change the way Washington works again with Romney."