SALT LAKE CITY -- With less than three weeks until the Utah Republican state convention, the best opportunity for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch's two main challengers to sway delegates could come Wednesday night during a sold-out debate that will be broadcast online.
The debate at the Juan Diego school about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City will include Hatch, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod. It's one of only two scheduled debates involving Hatch before the April 21 state convention.
Candidates are spending most of the remaining days attending county conventions and meeting with small groups of delegates in living rooms, cafes and community centers.
Based on initial observations from all sides, Hatch had strong support among Republicans who attended caucus meetings in late March and elected the 4,000 delegates who will go to the state convention. In particular, there wasn't the anti-incumbent sentiment among attendees that was palatable in 2010 and led to the eventual ouster of former Sen. Robert Bennett.
Interest in this year's caucus meetings soared, in large part because of an aggressive push to boost attendance by the Utah Republican Party and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Senate race also drew significant interest and prompted historic spending from campaigns -- Hatch spent more than $3 million to get supporters to the meetings -- as well as outside groups, who spent upward of $1.5 million.
Both Liljenquist and Herrod have acknowledged that Hatch's success at the caucus meetings will make it more difficult to topple him at the state convention, where a candidate has to secure 60 percent of the delegate vote to be the nominee. Otherwise, the top two will go to a primary.
Still, the candidates are confident that as delegates get to know them they can persuade enough to switch sides to force a primary.
"The biggest thing for a grassroots organization like mine is just getting in front of the delegates," Herrod said earlier this month.
Wednesday's debate will provide that opportunity, as it will be attended by hundreds of delegates. It also will be streamed live on the websites of the state's largest newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, as well as the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank.
The only other debate is April 16 in southern Utah.
About a dozen other Republicans also are running, but only Hatch, Liljenquist and Herrod have been invited to the debates.