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In Utah, Sen. Hatch courts tea partyers one by one in quest for survival

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), a top 2012 target for the tea party, is running for his seventh term in Utah by courting conservatives activists one by one.

"I said: 'Orrin, if you vote for earmarks, you won't get it off of you. B-52s will be circling overhead, and you will be carpet-bombed,' " Kirkham recalled. "He said, 'Okay.' "

Hatch voted for the earmark moratorium. He would have voted the same way even if he hadn't talked to Kirkham, an aide said. But the call didn't hurt. Kirkham says he likes Hatch personally and likes the way he's been voting lately. But he's not ready to throw his support behind the senator.

'A true-blue conservative'

Last month, Hatch gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. "I'm prepared to be the most hated man in this Godforsaken city in order to save this country," he said, testing out some of his new, testosterone-laced applause lines. (Still, some people in the crowd booed him for his TARP vote.)

Hatch, who usually reaches for loftier language, has expressed some unease with the coarser rhetoric that his audiences now expect. After using salty language to describe "Obamacare" at a recent town hall meeting, Hatch apologized repeatedly and vowed to "repent."

He is also visibly irritated by the purity requirements of the tea partyers he is working so hard to court.

"I'm a true-blue conservative," Hatch said in a two-hour interview in his Salt Lake City office. "But I think conservatism isn't just standing back and stopping everything. . . . With some of these people, if they have a flaw, it's that if you disagree with them on one thing, it's enough for them to want you out of office.

"Well, there's nobody that's going to agree with you on everything. There's nobody. And if you think there is, it shows that you're extreme."

Hatch described himself as a principled conservative but said, "You've got to recognize that people on the other side have feelings, that they have ideas, that they care for people also and that to get any substantial work done, you need to have the ability to bring both sides together."

What has made Hatch so successful by Washington standards is also what makes activists in Utah regard him as an apostate.

"He always reaches over the aisle," said Clark Roberts, 49, who founded the Weber County 9/12 Project, a Utah tea party group. "Why doesn't he lead and have people lean over the aisle to him?"

Vowing to deliver

Among the crowds at a series of Lincoln Day GOP fundraising dinners last month, it was hard to find anyone who didn't take a liking to Hatch. He's a great talker, and after more than three decades in office, he is a Utah institution.

"I will love that man for the rest of my life," said Anita Kersey, 67, whose granddaughter Hatch helped get a liver transplant.

But likability does not necessarily translate into convention votes, and Hatch has faced tough reelection challenges before. In his autobiography,"Square Peg," he recalls activists at the 2000 state GOP convention jeering him with "lusty, full-throated, enthusiastic boos." And this time, Hatch will probably face one or more opponents.

One possible challenger is Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who won his seat in 2008 by wresting the GOP nomination from an incumbent. Chaffetz is unsure he wants to give up his perch as one of the House's more prominent young conservatives. "I'm a definite maybe," he said in an interview.

But he sounds like a candidate. He repeatedly criticized Hatch as he ate a bowl of queso dip at a Chili's in his sprawling suburban district. Chaffetz, 43, marveled at the fact that he was 9 years old when Hatch was first elected, calling him "the senator who was swept in with Jimmy Carter."

Hatch tries not to engage his young critic. "We have a few people who are constantly chirping," he said.

Instead, he reminds every audience that if the Republicans win back the Senate in 2012, he is slated to chair the powerful Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over taxes and entitlement programs such as Social Security.

The other night, as a blizzard blew into the state, Hatch drove along a treacherous canyon road to reach Logan, where a few dozen likely GOP delegates were waiting.

He gave his spiel, about how he could deliver for the state in a way no newcomer could. The audience was polite but wary.

As the senator worked the crowd awhile, the snow was starting to pile up. He needed to head back. He looked over at Scharf, the tea party midwife who had come along to reassure the delegates that Hatch was one of them. Affixed to her shirt was the unofficial tea party symbol - a yellow Gadsden flag pin with a picture of a coiled rattlesnake over the words "Don't Tread on Me."

On his way to the door, the senator gave her some advice that he has surely given himself.

"Stay strong," he said. "Don't let them push you around."

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