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Washington • Mitt Romney, likely the most popular politician among Utah voters, endorsed Sen. Orrin Hatch's re-election campaign Monday, reciprocating after the senior senator backed Romney's two presidential runs.

This is the latest in a string of conservative endorsements that the Hatch campaign hopes will ward off a potential Republican challenger in his 2012 race.

Romney hinged his endorsement on Hatch's position as the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax policy and social programs such as Medicare.

"Orrin is a committed public servant who always puts the people of Utah first," Romney said in a statement. "America faces tremendous challenges. But I know that with Orrin Hatch at the helm of the Senate Finance Committee, we can chart a better course for our country built on strong pro-growth policies of low taxes, robust economic growth and much-needed jobs."

Hatch said he was "deeply humbled by Mitt's support" and reiterated that Romney is his favorite candidate to beat President Barack Obama.

"He is a man I deeply admire," Hatch said, "and whom I know would lead our nation out of the economic mess we are in today."

Romney joins a list of supporters that includes conservative pundits Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. The support of Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who led the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, will likely benefit Hatch's bid for a seventh term but shouldn't be seen as a complete game changer.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, received Romney's backing in 2010 and had the GOP presidential hopeful introduce him at the Utah Republican Convention, but the delegates sent Bennett packing that same day, preferring Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee — the eventual winner — to face off in a primary.

So far, Hatch faces no announced challengers after Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, decided against running for the Senate. Tea party activists say they will find a candidate to run to Hatch's right, complaining that he isn't as fiscally conservative as they would like.

Romney remains popular in Utah. He received the support of 71 percent of the Republican respondents to a Salt Lake Tribune poll conducted in August that asked which GOP candidate they preferred in the presidential race.

Twitter: @mattcanham