SALT LAKE CITY — It's a month before the June 26 primary election. Do you know who Dan Liljenquist is?
One of Liljenquist's biggest challenges coming out of last month's state Republican Party convention where he forced longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch into a runoff was building name recognition. Almost everyone has heard of Hatch. But, as Liljenquist himself said, few know his tongue-twisting Swedish last name let alone how to pronounce it. (Think of Liljen rhyming with million.)
Though he's out meeting voters across the state, much of Liljenquist's campaign has been in the social media and focused on pecking at Hatch, particularly about the senator's refusal to debate him on television. Even Liljenquist's entree into television advertising this past week continued to sound that note.
"My take on the Liljenquist campaign so far is it hasn't been very visible yet," said Quin Monson, assistant director at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU.
According to the candidate, that's about to change. Liljenquist, 37, said it was his goal to ramp up his campaign five weeks out. And he says he has enough money to stay on the air until the election. He currently has two television spots, one urging Hatch to debate him and another contrasting his record with the senator's.
"All the ads will be me speaking directly to the camera," said the former state senator, who resigned two years into his first term to run for U.S. Senate.
Liljenquist said his internal polling shows Hatch running in the "low 50s," putting him within striking distance. Meantime, "only half the state knows my name," he said.
Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen said the senator's internal polling shows Hatch doing well.
"We feel good about where things are at right now," he said. "These things have a way of changing so you can't slow down."
Monson said Liljenquist's strategy is smart but also is borne of necessity.
"He's on a more limited budget," he said. "He's wise to hold his fire until the end and then go all out."
FreedomWorks, the national tea party organization based in Washington, D.C., has yet to assert itself for Liljenquist like it did before the convention.
But its national political director, Russ Walker, said FreedomWorks will be "very active" in the race with volunteers going door to door, phone calls, signs and online ads. TV and radio, though, don't appear to be part of the support strategy.
"We'll never compete with what we're seeing from the Hatch camp," Walker said. "This is a tough race. Orrin Hatch is pulling out all the stops."
Hatch had spent $5.6 million on re-election and had $3.2 million on hand as of April 1, according to his most recent Federal Elections Commission report. Liljenquist had spent $227,000 and had $242,000 in the bank, according to his report. Liljenquist's campaign funds to that point included $300,000 of his own money.
Both candidates continue to raise money. The next financial disclosure report isn't due until mid-June.
Hatch's resources allow him to run a more steady race. His TV and radio ads have been up for several weeks. The current three spots tout his leadership and experience, saying he will restore financial responsibility to Washington and get a balance budget amendment passed.
Some noted conservatives such as Sarah Palin have also jumped on his bandwagon. Two of his colleagues, Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., will be in town next week to stump for him.
"He's got the advantage. He almost came out of convention. He's got the money. He has almost 100 percent name recognition," said University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless.
The 78-year-old, six-term senator appears focused on the primary race, Chambless said, noting he never mentions the Democrat in the race, former state Sen. Scott Howell.
"Hatch has said he wants everyone to know he's a fighter," Chambless said.
The Hatch campaign fired back this past week at Liljenquist's relentless call for debates.
"It’s understandable why Dan Liljenquist would want Utahns to view this campaign through an alternate reality," according to a press release. "In the real world, demanding debates is a time-worn campaign tactic used by candidates with little name recognition in the effort to gain free press attention."
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