SALT LAKE CITY -- U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch faced his challenger Friday in the pair's only debate ahead of the June 26 primary when voters will decide whether to send the longtime senator back to Washington for a seventh and final term.
The often contentious debate between the two largely focused on the growing national debt, entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security, and immigration and earmarks.
Hatch said voters should send him back to Washington because he has the seniority and know-how to save programs like Social Security and Medicare.
"We've got to get it under control or our kids and our grandkids aren't going to have a very great future," Hatch said. "Our country is at a crossroads. We're either going to go farther down or going to start picking up."
Hatch played up his seniority, arguing that he is the only candidate who has the ability to enact the Republican Party's priorities from day one of the next congressional session. He also noted that he will potentially lead the powerful Senate Finance Committee, if Republicans regain control of the chamber in the November general election.
"Literally 60 percent of the budget comes through that committee," Hatch said Friday.
Dan Liljenquist said it's time for new leadership in Washington after years of "wasteful" spending and rising debt.
He said the longtime senator has a history of supporting wasteful earmarks to campaign contributors, noting his placement on the powerful Senate committee is a detriment to constituents, not a benefit.
"I am running, senator, because you could become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, not in spite of it," Liljenquist said. "We have got to have new leaders in Washington ... who will do more than just talk about reforming."
Both candidates agreed that securing the border is a key priority for the nation and that cutting spending in Washington is crucial to trimming the national debt.
Liljenquist accused Hatch of being part of the spending problem, but said he refuses to accept responsibility.
"Do you consider yourself responsible in any way for the nation's debt that has exploded in your time in Washington?" Liljenquist asked.
Hatch responded testily, "Frankly, no, I have led the fight against the debt from day one."
Much of the debate entailed back-and-forth jabs from Liljenquist that Hatch has been in Washington too long and needs to go, while Hatch insisted Liljenquist isn't experienced enough to represent Utah.
Hatch had rebuffed efforts by Liljenquist to face off in televised debates, and turned down an offer by KSL for a prime-time event, instead agreeing only to appear on KSL Newsradio's morning talk show hosted by Doug Wright, who served as the moderator.
Hatch said he wanted to focus more on town hall meetings.
Hatch was forced into a primary after Utah Republicans denied the incumbent senator a clear path to the general election at the state party convention in April, where he fell short of the outright nomination by fewer than three dozen votes from the nearly 4,000 delegates.
Despite the setback, the 78-year-old lawmaker holds a significant fundraising edge in what has become the stiffest challenge since his election to the Senate in 1976. The eventual Republican nominee will face Democrat Scott Howell, who lost to Hatch in 2000. Utah has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1970.
"A few months ago, a lot of people weren't giving me a chance. So I feel good. I consider it a victory with everything that happened in the past," Hatch said after the convention.
The 2010 convention saw the ouster of three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in an upset fueled by a tea party surge. Hatch had been working feverishly to avoid the same fate.
Liljenquist, 37, has tried to convince voters that a new generation of lawmakers is needed in Washington.