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In a little over a week, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch will find out whether he'll compete for a seventh term in the U.S. Senate. That decision will be made by about 4,000 delegates to Utah's state Republican convention. Two years ago, that same convention ousted three-term Republican Senator Robert Bennett.
But as NPR's Howard Berkes reports, Hatch has already spent millions to make sure the same doesn't happen to him.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: For the last three weeks, Marvin Haney of Morgan, Utah, has been one incredibly popular guy.
MORGAN HANEY: They are relentless. It's a contact sport almost you would think, continuous contact. Email, phone and invitations to their events, intensely. That's the nature of it.
BERKES: Haney and about 4,000 other Utah Republicans possess something extremely valuable for one more week, a vote which will determine whether six-term Senator Orrin Hatch, at 78 years old, will spend another six years in the Senate.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Senator Hatch will be there from 2 to 3:30 p.m. If you have any questions you could have him answer them. Appreciate your time. Thanks.
BERKES: The phone bank is buzzing at the Hatch campaign headquarters outside Salt Lake City. And in every corner of the state, 20 paid staffers assess and reassess where each of the 4,000 convention delegates stand. In the last 15 months, the Hatch campaign itself spent close to $6 million, and we're still months away from the primary or general elections. That's because Hatch won't be a candidate in either, unless he survives the state convention a week from Saturday.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: You need to work with the delegates. You need to let them know that you care. You need to answer their questions. You need to let them know that they're very important people in your life.
BERKES: Hatch hasn't worked this hard for votes since 1976, when he trounced a three-term Democratic incumbent. But two years ago, a Tea Party-infused revolt dominated the state Republican convention and left junior Senator Bob Bennett, also a three-term incumbent, with too few votes to get into the primary.
ROBERT BENNETT: The desire to lash out against incumbents - they're all corrupt, they're all stupid, they've all been there too long, throw them all out - that was the overwhelming emotion in 2010. It was on the blogs. It was on Glenn Beck. It was on Rush Limbaugh. Everywhere.
BERKES: This Republican-on-Republican political violence persists. The same people who successfully tossed Bennett from the Senate targeted Orrin Hatch, including FreedomWorks, a Republican superPAC which flooded Utah airwaves with ads.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Utahns thought we sent a conservative to Washington. But Orrin Hatch has risked your children's future by voting to raise our nation's debt limit 16 times. Orrin Hatch gave away your family's money to bailouts for Wall Street bankers...
BERKES: FreedomWorks has spent close to $700,000 attacking Hatch. Russ Walker is the group's political director.
RUSS WALKER: He's been there a long time, and with that length in service comes a lengthy record of expanding the size and scope of government. And it's really for us about his record and nothing more.
BERKES: The attacks leave Hatch defensive and angry.
HATCH: Give me a break. These people are not conservatives. They're not Republicans. They're radical libertarians. And I'm doggone offended by it. I despise these people, and I'm not the type of guy you'd come in and dump on without getting punched in the mouth.
BERKES: This is a former boxer talking. But Hatch has thrown more money than punches this year, aimed at the convention delegates chosen at neighborhood caucuses three weeks ago. They're typically dominated by strident, anti-incumbent Republican activists.
But the Hatch effort and a non-partisan Mormon Church appeal for political involvement overwhelm the caucuses with moderates. Hatch is now confident he'll survive the convention but will probably be stuck with a June primary, which he avoided in his last five elections.
Former State Senator Dan Liljenquist is the likely primary opponent.
DAN LILJENQUIST: We've got to have new leaders in Washington if we're going to change the direction of this country, and the folks who led us into this mess are not the guys to get us out of it.
BERKES: Liljenquist was two years old when Orrin Hatch was first elected in 1976. He and Hatch actually agree on most issues, and both agree seniority is the decisive issue.
LILJENQUIST: This race all comes down to that question, whether or not seniority is so important that people feel forced to vote for the same people in the same system that they all complain about.
BERKES: Hatch repeatedly says two things about seniority.
HATCH: I believe that we can help save this country, especially if Mitt Romney gets there and I'm chairman of the finance committee, and we have other Republican chairman in both the Senate and the House. I believe we can turn this country around.
BERKES: Fellow Mormon Mitt Romney is the single-most popular politician in Mormon-dominated Utah. Hatch mentioned Romney nine times in a recent debate, and Romney champions Hatch in robo-calls to delegates.
We'll find out April 21st, when state convention delegates vote, whether Romney or seniority or FreedomWorks make any difference in Orrin Hatch's effort to hold onto his job.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
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