SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch announced Wednesday he'll serve as a "special adviser on policy" as well as a campaign surrogate for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The announcement comes as Hatch faces his first primary since winning office 36 years ago, against former state lawmaker Dan Liljenquist in the party's June 26 run-off election.
Joining with "the guy who has a good chance of being the next president of the United States is very helpful," Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said.
Hansen said clearly the association with Romney, a favorite of Utah voters, would help Hatch in the primary. "Sure it does. There's not a question about it," he said.
Liljenquist, who has challenged his opponent to a series of eight debates around the state, said Hatch should be focused on the Utah Senate race rather than Romney's White House bid.
"We're all excited to help Mitt Romney become the next president, but with all due respect to the senator, he has a primary race," Liljenquist said. "If he can find time to campaign around the country for Mitt Romney, he can certainly find time to debate the issues in his own race in front of the voters of the state of Utah."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank questioned the timing of Hatch's new position. According to Hatch's campaign, he will "provide strategic policy advice on key economic issues" as well as serve as a Romney surrogate.
"To make that announcement right now, it seems odd in terms of the presidential process at least," Burbank said. "It seems like it's aimed more at Hatch's efforts than Romney's."
Hatch often invokes the presumptive GOP presidential nominee's name in his campaign speeches, describing how important his seniority would be to a President Mitt Romney.
Romney, who won a whopping 90 percent of the vote in Utah's 2008 Republican presidential primary, endorsed Hatch in a video message shown at the party's state convention last month.
But Hatch has yet to hit the campaign trail for Romney this election, as he did four years ago in Iowa and other states. Hansen said any appearances by Hatch for Romney "will depend on the schedule and the need. But I'm sure he'll do some."
Hatch, of course, has been kept busy with his own re-election bid, hoping to avoid the fate of former Sen. Bob Bennett, who was ousted by GOP delegates in 2008 despite a rousing endorsement speech by Romney at the party's state convention.
Hansen said that two years ago, Romney was seen by delegates as a private citizen from Massachusetts, albeit one beloved in the state, not the potential president he is viewed as today.
"It makes a heck of a difference," Hansen said.
Romney emerged as the party's apparent choice after a tough string of primary battles against a series of rivals that included former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, who formally left the race Wednesday.
Several prominant Utah politicians are already campaigning for Romney, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt. Leavitt has spent time both with the candidate as well as with Romney's top advisers in the campaign's Boston headquarters.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who briefly considered challenging Hatch, also has traveled with Romney's campaign, often appearing on the presidential candidate's behalf in Florida and other key primary states.
Later this week, Chaffetz will represent Romney at the Nevada Republican Party's state convention and is the keynote speaker at the party's "Silver Stampede" dinner Friday.
"Sen. Hatch has always been helpful to Gov. Romney," Chaffetz said, adding he is "glad to have Sen. Hatch help make the case to defeat President Obama."
Romney said in a statement issued by the Hatch campaign that he looks forward to working with Hatch "to get those who've become so frustrated with Washington to believe in America again."
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