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Washington • As national political handicappers placed Sen. Orrin Hatch on the tea party's target list Tuesday, the Utah Republican said he identifies with the conservative movement that has been upsetting establishment GOP candidates across the country.

"I'll stand up for the tea party every time," Hatch said. "These people are angry — justifiably angry. They're taking a part in the process. They're making a difference."

Hatch's comments, made to reporters just off the Senate floor, come on the heels of The Washington Post tagging Hatch as one of five Republican senators who in 2012 could fall victim to the tea party, which helped take out his Utah Republican colleague, Bob Bennett, earlier this year at the state GOP convention.

The online outlet Salon, too, added Hatch to its list of senators who face trouble from within their own ranks.

That's largely because Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and tea party darling who beat 12-year incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon to nab his seat in 2008, has openly said he is considering challenging Hatch in two years.

Hatch heralded the tea party Tuesday amid questions that the grass-roots movement might actually ding the GOP's chances of taking back the Senate.

"In all honesty, they deserve a lot of credit — not a lot of scorch and blame," Hatch said. "And if the Democrats do that, they're going to get their heads handed to them."

His comments aside, though, a victory by tea-party-backed Christine O'Donnell in the Delaware Republican primary might cost the GOP its opportunity to pick up the seat previously held by Vice President Joe Biden.

Hatch, however, stood by O'Donnell and said she "appears to be a decent person" and that while he doesn't know "enough about her," he likes her. He also slammed the news media for questions raised about her background, including a comment that she "dabbled" in witchcraft and her work for an anti-masturbation campaign.

"I think they've gone overboard on it. I really do," Hatch said. "I think there's a point where women are going to get upset about it. And say, 'Hey, c'mon, get off her back.' "

A Salt Lake Tribune poll of delegates before the May convention showed discontent with Hatch among the Republican base, a concern the senator has taken seriously since.

Leading tea party voices in Utah have noted before that Hatch has kept up constant contact with them and he has been more vocal in his criticism of the Obama administration and Democrats generally.