By KEVIN FREKING and JOSH LOFTIN, ASSOCIATED PRESS
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch appealed to GOP delegates Saturday to give him one last term so he can help repeal the health care law and potentially lead the powerful Senate Finance Committee if Republicans regain control of the chamber.
The 78-year-old Hatch, now in his sixth term and first elected in 1976, told nearly 4,000 GOP delegates who were to decide whether to award him the nomination or send him into a primary that experience can make all the difference in getting conservative priorities passed.
"It will be my last six years in the U.S. Senate, but they'll be the best six years and the most critical six years of all," Hatch said.
Hatch began laying the groundwork for the convention even before he watched U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett go down to defeat two years ago. With a game plan designed to answer his critics' every claim and with a boost from GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, it's becoming ever more likely that he won't experience a similar fate.
His top challengers, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod, were scrambling to survive against the powerful, well-financed incumbent.
To secure the nomination, a candidate must win at least 60 percent of the vote from the 4,000 delegates. By all accounts, Hatch was on the cusp of that threshold. Anything short of that share would force a primary.
Hatch still would have a distinct advantage if the race went to that next round, largely because of his considerable financial strength.
Liljenquist, 37, took issue with Hatch's assertion that his seniority was such a critical asset. He noted that Hatch had used a similar argument in previous elections and that the GOP would still be in good hands without Hatch's influence because Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho was next in line for serve as the next Finance Committee chairman if the Senate changes hands.
"No one senator is too big to fail," Liljenquist said.
Whether the Republican nomination is decided Saturday or by a primary June 26, the eventual winner will be the heavy favorite in November because of the GOP dominance in Utah.
This year, the two Democrats expected to vie for their party's nomination - Pete Ashdown and Scott Howell - have previously lost statewide races by wide margins to Hatch. No Democrat from Utah has been elected to the Senate since 1970.
During recent campaign events, Hatch has urged delegates to nominate him for a seventh term so that he can spend his time, money and energy on supporting other Republican candidates in tight races around the country. Most notably, he points to the assistance he could provide Romney, in defeating President Barack Obama.
Romney is extremely popular in Utah because of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his leadership during the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Hatch has emphasized Romney's endorsement during speeches and debates, and it has seemingly paid dividends among first-time delegates, in particular. He introduced Hatch via a recorded video message.
Liljenquist and Herrod argued for new leadership in Washington. While they have applauded Hatch for his 36 years in office, they say he's had his chance to push through meaningful reforms on entitlement programs and rein in government spending.
This year's race essentially began in 2010, when Bennett was ousted by delegates fueled by tea party politics.
Hatch immediately recognized the challenge he would likely face from those groups and launched one of the most well-organized and expensive campaigns in the state's history. Since the beginning of 2011, he has spent more than $5 million - and he still has $3 million to spend on a primary.
Bennett's loss frustrated many Republicans, who believed that a vocal minority hijacked the nomination process. This year, turnout at the neighborhood caucus meetings more than doubled and many attendees said they wanted to make sure Hatch wasn't treated in the same way.
Grant Warner of Salt Lake City said he would vote for Hatch. He also supported Bennett two years ago.
"We don't want to do what they did two years ago - throw our people with seniority out the door," Warner said as the convention got under way.
But Craig Harrison, a delegate from St. George, said he wasn't persuaded by Hatch's appeal that he would represent conservative values in the Senate.
"Orrin Hatch is the master of creating the illusion of being a conservative," said Harrison, a three-time delegate. "The voting record doesn't lie."