SANDY — State GOP Chairman Dave Hansen said he's leaving his post next month to get an early start as manager of Sen. Orrin Hatch's 2012 re-election campaign.
Hansen told members of the party's central committee meeting at the Salt Lake Community College campus in Sandy that his decision did "not necessarily" mean the senator is running again.
"What I've been asked to do," he said, "is put together a campaign that if he decides to run, that it will be there for him. I want to be very straight and fair and up front with you about what's going to happen."
Hansen said he felt he needed to leave before his two-year term ends in June to avoid having "to try to tiptoe that tightrope" between being a party chairman and a campaign manager.
Some party members were already questioning his ability to stay objective in what could be a contested primary for Hatch. Hansen managed Hatch's 2006 campaign and earned money as a consultant to the senator through last summer.
News of Hansen's decision surfaced last week, as did a Washington Post column by Chris Cillizza that named Hatch as one of 10 senators most likely to retire in 2012.
Cillizza, who ranked Hatch No. 9 on that list, wrote Friday in The Fix that even though it's clear the senator "is gearing up for a tough race from the tea-party wing of the party" with the help of Hansen, he "will have much to ponder over these next few months."
That's because Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is "sounding more and more like a candidate," he wrote, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, lost his bid for re-election earlier this year at the GOP state convention.
Hatch spokeswoman Heather Barney said Saturday that although Hatch has not made a formal announcement he's seeking a seventh term, he's in the race.
"There's been absolutely no indication he's doing anything but running," Barney said, noting Hatch has tried to make sure Utahns "know he shares many of their concerns about what's happening in Washington" by holding town meetings through the state.
"In today's environment, he wants to make sure his message gets out about what he has done for Utah, what he continues to do for Utah and what he'll do for Utah in the future," she said. "It's just a matter of making sure the bases are covered."
Hansen downplayed suggestions that his stepping down sooner than expected to work for Hatch was a sign the senator is worried about re-election.
"I think what they need to read is the fact that the senator is very serious about the campaign and he's going to want to make sure he does everything he can to get ready for it. That's why we're starting early. With Sen. Hatch, he never leaves things to chance."
Hansen will be replaced at the party's Jan. 22 central committee meeting. So far, only Salt Lake County GOP Chairman Thomas Wright has announced he's running for the post.
The party leaders at Saturday's meeting, which included Sen.-elect Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, gave Hansen and party vice chairwoman Kitty Dunn, who is also stepping down, a standing ovation for their service.
Hansen cited the GOP gains in the November elections as a major accomplishment and praised the contentious Republican state convention in June where Bennett was ousted.
"That was one of the greatest days I've ever had in my life," he said. "I absolutely loved that state convention. The enthusiasm of all of those thousands of people and the excitement, carried over to the election."
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