WASHINGTON - It's possible that there are no sure things in politics, but Orrin Hatch comes close.
With nearly three decades in the Senate, Hatch is the clear patriarch of Utah Republicans who, in his past five elections, has steamrolled his opponents with ease, drawing more than two-thirds of the vote.
But there remain detractors, some in his own party, who argue he has lost touch with the state. And he angered some die-hard conservatives with his support for embryonic stem cell research and the expanded law enforcement powers in the Patriot Act.
So it is not surprising that, as Hatch prepares to stand for re-election next year, there is a search - as there was in 2000 - for a dark-horse candidate willing to take on the Goliath.
"Of course we've looked at it. We hope there isn't a challenger in the party. We'd just as soon not have one from the Democrats, either, but that obviously isn't going to happen," said Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen. "Our plan is to be organized and ready. If we have a challenger,
fine. If we don't, even better. But we're going to be ready for whatever comes down the track."
Several Republicans have been asked to run, among them state Rep. Steve Urquhart, who says he has heard discontent with Hatch's performance among some state legislators and local officials.
"I am hearing from almost everyone who approaches me that there is concern about his focus," said Urquhart. "There's concern whether he wants to be a senator or something else, be it a musician or Supreme Court justice, and local leaders, we really want two hard-working senators."
Urquhart said there has definitely been "a lot of talk" about finding another Republican to run, and says there's a 50 percent chance a significant challenger will step forward.
On the Democratic side, Pete Ashdown, founder of the Internet service provider XMission, has announced he is running against Hatch, arguing the senator sold out to media companies and is out of touch with Utah.
Taking on Hatch from either party is a colossal challenge. He is savvy
and experienced, known across the state, has more than $1 million in the bank now and a fund-raising prowess that will allow him to tap millions more if it's needed.
A poll by The Salt Lake Tribune shows solid - but not necessarily overwhelming - support for electing Hatch to a sixth term, a feat unprecedented in Utah history. The survey found that 42 percent of voting-age Utahns say they support a sixth term for Hatch. Nearly 17 percent would support another Republican candidate.
Just more than one in five would support a Democrat, 4 percent would back an independent and 6 percent would vote for another party.
Hatch's support was strongest among residents between 18 and 35 and those living in rural counties.
The survey of 400 adults statewide was conducted by Valley Research Inc., between June 8 and 10. It has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 5 percent.
State Republican Party Chairman Joe Cannon, an unabashed Hatch supporter, said there are always "dissidents in the party, who think that Senator Hatch isn't their
"But I haven't actually heard of any serious candidates emerging against the senator, and frankly it would be incredibly hard to beat Senator Hatch, either at a convention or in a primary or in a general election," he said.
John D. Jacob, a wealthy developer from Eagle Mountain who has been considering a Senate bid for several years, met with Hatch two weeks ago in Salt Lake City to discuss his plans.
"It was pretty obvious by the fact that John was coming there that they wanted to discuss the race and the possibilities," said Ben Demke, who is in charge of government relations for Jacob's companies.
Demke said Jacob made it clear to Hatch that if he runs he'll be campaigning for Senate, not running against Hatch. Jacob will make his decision this fall, Demke said.
A relative unknown making an unexpectedly strong showing at the Republican's state convention is not unprecedented - a feat made possible because the party's convention delegates have typically come from the conservative
In 2000, attorney Greg Hawkins came within a whisker of forcing Hatch into a primary.
By that time, Hawkins had been working more than 18 months, meeting with delegates and laying the groundwork for his upstart campaign.
He said he has again been asked to run against Hatch by the party's fringe elements but that he's not interested and is supporting Hatch's re-election.
"Most people don't understand what it takes to run for a statewide office like that. It's not only money but an enormous amount of effort," Hawkins said. "There's nobody in the state that can challenge him in the Democratic Party. And in the Republican Party, if there's nobody who's challenging him now, there's no way they can pull it off."
Hansen said Hatch spends as much time as possible in the state, doing his work as a senator, but taking time to answer questions and explain his positions for party leaders, county officers and activists.
"There are 3,500 delegates. It's hard to please all of them all the time,"
Hansen said. "The senator isn't going to change his positions on issues, but we need to make sure he explains them to the voters."
Hawkins says jumping into a race against Hatch at this point would be futile. "Unless Hatch does something incredibly hurtful, which he won't because he's an experienced person, he's not going to be beat and it's incredibly wasteful to try," he said. "It'd be better to put your time and money into something else."