Few Utahns would have believed back in 1976 that a little-known lawyer named Orrin Hatch, who had never run for public office before and had only moved to Utah from his native Pennsylvania a few years previously, would by 2006 be the longest-serving U.S. senator in Utah's history and have seniority over 90 other senators.

Yes, Hatch has rewritten the political landscape of Utah.

And at 71 years old, Hatch is not slowing down.

He may not run for president again, as he did in 2000. But he's running for re-election in 2006. And unless his health takes an unexpected turn for the worse, I'd bet you'd see him as a candidate again in 2012 at age 78 (assuming he wins next year).

After all those years he served on the Senate Judiciary Committee, a number as chairman when Republicans controlled the body, it seems odd that we're going to go through what may be history-changing hearings over a new Supreme Court justice this summer and Hatch won't be presiding. (He's still on the committee, just not the chairman of it.)

But Hatch remains an active — and to some, a controversial — senator.

As any long-serving politician knows, the length of stay in office often translates into complaints from constituents. But Hatch remains popular.

A new poll for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV by Dan Jones & Associates shows that 72 percent of Utahns strongly or somewhat approve of the job Hatch is doing as senator. Jones found in the early-June survey that 16 percent disapprove and 12 percent didn't know about his job performance.

That 72 percent approval rating — as it is known — is not the highest Hatch has had. But it's not the lowest, either. And anything in the 70 percentile is good for Utah, exceptionally good for a member of Congress from another state.

Hatch certainly has his critics from the right of Utah's Republican Party.

He was booed (along with then-Gov. Mike Leavitt) in the 2000 state GOP convention and barely escaped that convention without a primary challenge. (Leavitt was forced into a primary by the disgruntled delegates.)

There's much speculation this year whether a credible Republican will come from the right to challenge Hatch inside the party. He's faced challenges from other Republicans before but always easily beat them.

And he hasn't had a serious challenge from a Democrat since former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson ran against him in Hatch's first re-election in 1982.

Is Hatch beatable in 2006?

History says no.

But then few people gave him a chance in 1976, either.

That year Hatch filed late. And one close political ally recalls that when Hatch called together some supporters and talked to them about running for the Senate, a few hemmed and hawed and then a brave soul said: Orrin, people usually run for the Utah House before they run for the Utah Senate.

No, said Hatch, I'm running for the U.S. Senate.

An embarrassed quiet ensued, the politico reports.

What was this guy from out of state — who had attended Brigham Young University but then gone back to Pennsylvania to get his law degree while working (horror of horrors) as a labor union member — thinking about?

Taking on credible GOP candidates for the chance to challenge a popular, 18-year incumbent U.S. Democratic senator?

Hatch didn't care.

He knew what he wanted, and he worked very hard to get it.

And he'll work very hard in next year's re-election as well.

No doubt some Utah conservatives will be mollified this summer as Hatch goes to the mat for President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, as Hatch has for other GOP court nominations for years.

Maybe they'll forgive him for stands on stem-cell research and co-sponsorship of CHIP (children's health insurance program) with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., a man conservatives love to hate.

In any case, at this point Hatch is clearly the odds-on favorite to win again in 2006. And maybe to win again in 2012.

Who would have thought that that skinny attorney who announced his long-shot candidacy in 1976 to one of the most powerful and prestigious positions in American political life would serve more than 30 years in the U.S. Senate from Utah?

Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com