AMERICAN FORK — The capacity crowd waited with anticipation while Rep. Jason Chaffetz stood off to the side, a wallflower in the American Fork hotel conference room. Out of the spotlight on a Wednesday night, the maverick legislator waited for his cue.
Following an opening prayer, the front of the room cleared out for Chaffetz's opening monologue. During a pregnant pause he took a deep breath, surveyed his surroundings and willed himself to focus.
Nationwide economic uncertainty shrouds political forecasts, and stump speeches must address the trying times confronting our country or risk falling on deaf ears. Consequently, politicians across the country like Chaffetz are spending the August Congressional recess out on the campaign trail, hammering economic talking points with an eye toward 2012.
Chaffetz, R-Utah, recently held four town hall meetings across the Beehive State. At these events, he fielded unscreened questions and did not mince words in rebuking the federal government for its unprecedented spending and deficits.
"People are mad," Chaffetz said an hour before the meeting in American Fork started. "They're frustrated at their government. The changes that they've seen, they don't like. They're mystified as to why we find ourselves in such financial woes. … Clearly they want a course correction."
Deidre Henderson, Chaffetz's campaign manager, succinctly summarized the message Team Chaffetz looks to disseminate during these campaign appearances.
"Jason stands on principle," Henderson said. "He's not one to swing with the pendulum; he's not one to take a poll before he decides how he's going to vote. He has a set of principles — fiscal discipline, limited government, accountability and a strong national defense — that is a foundation upon which he builds all policy."
Chaffetz is publicly saying he will likely run against Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 2012. Although he hasn't yet officially declared to challenge Hatch, Chaffetz's four town-hall meetings last week all occurred outside the 3rd District he represents in the House.
With Chaffetz and Hatch generally professing very similar conservative fiscal sensibilities — they both strongly support a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, for example — Chaffetz is personally making his case to voters that he is the person voters can trust to help right the nation's troubled financial ship.
Arturo Morales, a state delegate for the Utah Republican Party who attended Chaffetz's recent American Fork meeting, got the candidate's message loud and clear.
"Chaffetz is right on — there has to be more restraint from our federal government on spending," Morales said. "Look at what he has been able to do in just his short term in office. His influence is growing, and he is looked at as a new leader. We need a fresh approach.
"On the other hand, Orrin Hatch has been there way too long — he's been in office since we got into this mess. To be honest, I don't think he's accomplished all that much."
Of course, there at least two sides to every political issue. Although the 77-year-old Hatch isn't out canvassing hotel conference rooms a la Chaffetz, at this point in the election cycle when technically Hatch still lacks an opponent, his campaign message is being clearly articulated by his influential friends like Greta Van Susteren, the Fox News host who blogged about Hatch on Thursday.
"The 'balanced budget amendment' is central to the tea party movement, so naturally I wondered where Sen. Orrin Hatch is on the (issue)…," Van Susteren wrote. "It turns out that Sen. Hatch was 30 years ahead of the formation of the tea party, and 31 years ahead of the newly elected tea party members of Congress on the issue of 'balanced budget amendment.'
"It is almost as if the balanced budget amendment, whether you agree with him or not, is in his DNA! I would think that fact alone would make him the champion (the visionary?) of the Utah tea party."
Regardless of how the Republican race plays out — assuming Chaffetz declares and the race actually materializes — Chaffetz savors the opportunity to keep spreading his message about the need for strict economic reform. On Thursday and Friday that push continues with Chaffetz holding two more meetings in Logan and Brigham City, respectively — locales which again fall outside the 3rd District.
"Maybe it's the placekicker in me, but I really like hearing and answering questions," Chaffetz said. "I don't have the answer to every question, but this is how I recharge my batteries."
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