SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Sen. Orrin Hatch began laying the groundwork for the next state Republican convention even before he watched 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 Mitt Romney, it's becoming ever more likely that he won't experience a similar fate.
His top challengers in Saturday's primary, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod, are scrambling to survive against the powerful, well-financed incumbent.
To secure the Republican nomination, a candidate must win at least 60 percent of the vote from the 4,000 delegates chosen by their neighbors last month. By all accounts, Hatch is on the cusp of that threshold while the other candidates are trailing him by significant margins.
Anything short of that 60 percent and Hatch is forced into a primary. He is expected to have a distinct advantage if the race goes to that next round as well, largely because of his considerable financial strength.
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, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, 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.
Liljenquist and Herrod, meanwhile, have argued for new leadership in Washington. While they applaud 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.
All of the candidates have spent the past few weeks working delegates at small events around the state, often engaging them in one-on-one conversations. That frenetic pace tapered off this week, and Friday the candidates mostly focused on preparing for Saturday's convention. They attended a pre-convention dinner hosted by the state party but otherwise had no events.
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 potential 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.
"I think that Hatch probably would have lost in 2010, as well," said long-time delegate Wendy Jones of West Valley City. "There was an anti-incumbent sentiment among the delegates that wasn't representative of the whole state."