SALT LAKE CITY -- Outreach to 4,000 new Republican delegates began immediately Friday for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and the challengers who hope to topple the six-term senator at next month's state Republican convention.
With only five weeks to educate delegates, candidates must now focus on winning over enough delegates to either win outright or progress to a primary.
For Hatch, that means continuing to emphasize the seniority he has earned during his 36 years of service. For his opponents, the biggest challenge is boosting their name recognition, especially among the many delegates who would like to see Hatch replaced but are unsure about the alternatives.
"From the reports we're getting, the senator did very well," said Dave Hansen, campaign manager for Hatch. "We understand that not one vote has been cast, but we're comfortable with the people who were chosen as delegates."
One thing is clear: Turnout at the caucuses was huge. Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said initial estimates say between 125,000 and 200,000 people participated, compared with about 58,000 people who attended the 2010 caucuses.
That influx of new people was driven by a push by the state party, which spent $300,000 on advertising, as well as a call from leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to attend.
Hatch's most prominent challenger, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, said he will devote his energy to educating the new delegates about his legislative accomplishments and his plans to fix the federal debt.
Based on media reports from around the state and postings on Twitter from caucus attendees, many attendees were frustrated by the tea party-affiliated group FreedomWorks, which spent more than $600,000 on advertising attacking Hatch. That could pose a problem for Liljenquist, because many people associate him with the group.
Liljenquist echoed those concerns and said he wants to make sure delegates understand that the support given to him by FreedomWorks doesn't mean he is beholden to the group or even the broader tea party movement. Liljenquist was named the group's "Legislative Entrepreneur of the Year" in 2011.
He also wants to remind people that other national groups have spent money on the race, and that a good portion of Hatch's money comes from out-of-state donors.
"People in Utah want to have their own process," Liljenquist said. "There has been a lot of money spent on both sides from outside of the state, and people should be frustrated."
Even if there was a backlash against FreedomWorks, it wasn't widespread and doesn't translate to strong support for Hatch, said Russ Walker, the group's executive director, who was in Utah to watch the caucuses. While Walker acknowledged that many areas shied away from choosing ardent anti-Hatch attendees as delegates, he said the reports he's received indicate fervent backers of Hatch weren't selected either.
"People wanted delegates who were open to looking at all of the candidates," Walker said. "That bodes well for Liljenquist and (state Rep. Chris) Herrod, because people already know Hatch."
Josh Loftin can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshloftin .