Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, speaks to reporters after voting on the spending bill in the Senate in March. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A nasty war of words has erupted between the two sides, setting the stage for what appears to be a likely effort by the Club to unseat Hatch next year.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Club has inserted itself into a race without supporting an opposing candidate. Nor would it be the first time in Utah.

In 2010, the Club announced before the May state party convention that it would be working to unseat Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), though it would not be endorsing anyof his opponents. Two other candidates finished ahead of the senator at the convention, meaning (under the state’s odd nominating process), Bennett didn’t even make it to the primary.

A similar effort is again brewing in Utah, where the Club is going after Hatch hard, with 10 months to go until a state party convention – even as we’re still waiting for the likes of Rep. Jason Chaffetz and state Sen. Dan Liljenquist to announce their intentions.

The Club earlier this week released ads in Utah and Indiana (where it is also considering targeting GOP Sen. Richard Lugar), urging the two men to resist raising the debt limit, while also taking some shots are their records on government spending.

But as we’ve written before, while Lugar has essentially gone about his business, Hatch is fighting back. Indeed, he appears to be spoiling for a fight with the Club.

Appearing on Fox News Channel on Tuesday, Hatch noted that Club head Chris Chocola, as a congressman, voted to raise the debt ceiling. In effect, he’s calling Chocola a hypocrite.

Hatch then urged the Club to pick a different target.

“By any measure, I’m considered one of the top conservative members in the history of this country,” Hatch said. “And I don’t know what they’re doing. All I can say is, they’re wasting their money, and they ought to go after Democrats who are really putting us in this bad condition.”

Hatch’s campaign says it is prepared to make the 2012 race about not just Hatch, but about Chocola and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who now heads the tea party group Freedomworks. (Freedomworks has announced it will oppose Hatch.)

The Hatch people believe both men have vulnerabilities in their records that can be exploited.

“We’re not going to sit back and take their crap without responding to it when they’re wrong,” Hatch campaign manager David Hansen said.

Hatch’s campaign will have the means to get its message out, announcing Thursday that it raised $1.3 million in the second quarter of 2011 and has $3.4 million in the bank.

In response, Club spokesman Barney Keller told The Fix that while Chocola’s record may not be perfect, the totality and length of Hatch’s record is much worse.

“We’ll leave it to the pundits to decide if attacking the Club for Growth will keep Utahns from learning about Orrin Hatch’s big-spending, pro-bailout record,” Keller said.

Hatch, of course, isn’t the first incumbent to fight back against the Club for Growth. At given points in recent years, then-Republican senator Arlen Specter (Pa.), then-congressman Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) and presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and John McCain have all jousted with the Club rather publicly.

But Hatch’s battle with the Club may serve to make him a more attractive target for the committee, which has made a name for itself by unseating Republican incumbents who haven’t lived up to its ideals. Indeed, the Club is tipping its hand pretty hard, having already urged Chaffetz to run.

“I think that right now, it looks like they’re probably going to” campaign against Hatch, Hansen said.

That goes double, because third party groups will often pick the races where they can have the most impact with the biggest bang for their buck. And right now – even more than Lugar in Indiana – that’s Utah.

First, the nominating process in Utah makes it a much cheaper state to play in, as pre-convention efforts involve only reaching out to 3,500 activists who will vote at the convention. The Club did a deft job of this in 2010 against Bennett.

(At that convention, Hatch must survive multiple ballots and then get at least 40 percent of the vote when it’s down to two candidates. If no candidate gets 60 percent of the vote in the head-to-head matchup, the race goes to a two-person primary.)

Second, even if Hatch does make the primary, advertising in the Salt Lake City market is quite a bit cheaper than the many media markets in Indiana, including Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville and Cincinnati – and there’s only one market in Utah.

To be sure, Lugar is also an inviting target for the Club, especially given Chocola was a congressman in Indiana. And the Club could surely deduce that Lugar is also an inviting target.

But for right now, a Club-vs.-Hatch matchup seems almost inevitable.