SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch easily dispatched fellow Republican Dan Liljenquist in last month's primary election.
Next up: Democrat Scott Howell.
Political observers give the former Utah Senate majority leader little hope of knocking off Hatch. But Howell, who lost badly to the six-term senator in 2000, doesn't see himself as a sacrificial lamb. In fact, he believes he's poised to play Rocky Balboa to Hatch's Apollo Creed.
"I've always wanted a rematch against Orrin," the 58-year-old Sandy resident said. "If I thought this was a sacrificial race, I would have never jumped into it. Never, ever. It's a winnable race is what it is."
Brigham Young University professor Quin Monson doesn't think so. He said the short answer to whether Howell can win in November is no.
"Hatch would have to make some egregious error for Howell to have a chance, and that's very unlikely," he said.
And what kind of mistake would that be?
"Oh, indictment is the word that comes to mind," Monson said.
Both Monson and University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless see Howell as a good candidate and the right kind of Democrat for Utah — moderate, active LDS, intelligent, articulate.
But like Monson, Chambless says the race is Hatch's to lose.
Chambless said it would take alienating Utahns with a demeaning remark or counterproductive television ad for Hatch to leave Howell an opening. Hatch saying he's the only one who could save Hill Air Force Base or that he's the next Senate Finance Committee chairman are presumptions that could also hurt him, he said.
Howell needs a "game changer," an issue that "captures the imagination of voters," Chambless said.
Utahns have not elected a Democratic U.S. senator since Frank Moss in 1970. Hatch ousted him six years later. And his challengers have walked away battered and bruised on election night ever since. Democrats, though, have managed wins in Congress and the governor's office the past 40 years.
Chambless attributes Republicans' stranglehold on the Senate to money, timing, good candidates and the perception that Democrats close to home can be trusted more than Democrats away from home.
Democrats need to keep finding the best candidates they can because sometimes lightning strikes, Monson said.
A Deseret News/KSL-TV poll last month showed Howell trailing Hatch 63-29, numbers not much different than the 2000 election results.
But a dozen years have past since then. Howell says Hatch has grown old, lost touch, seen his shelf life expire. The challenger said he will bring "refreshed representation" and new ideas to the office.
Howell, in a meeting with the Deseret News editorial board this week, questioned not only the 78-year-old senator's longevity in Washington but also his physical stamina and mental acuity.
"We all know what happens at 78. We all know where an individual is. He could be my dad," Howell said.
"I think a sitting senator who's been there 36 years is not doing a favor to anyone in the state of Utah nor to the country. He'll be 84 years old (at the end of his seventh term). Eighty-four. Think about that."
Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen called the insinuation an insult to active older people.
"Tell that to a lot of the Mormon Church leaders," Hansen said.
Liljenquist also tried to portray Hatch as well past his prime in his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination.
But Howell said voters viewed the former GOP state senator as an extremist because of his tea party backing. "The saw him as another Mike Lee," he said. Howell said Utahns will see him as a centrist.
A retired IBM executive, Howell said he thrived on finding collaborative solutions to problems in the private sector. He'd bring that same attitude to the Senate where he says partisanship has led to gridlock. He said he learned the art of political compromise while serving three terms in the Utah Legislature.
"Orrin used to have the bone in his body when he worked with Ted Kennedy," Howell said, citing the violence against women and dream acts from which Hatch has now distanced himself. "But, boy, he doesn't have it now."
Though he's a Democrat, Howell wavers on his support for President Barack Obama. He said he hasn't made up his mind about voting for him or presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Howell served on the committee that hired Romney to run the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.
"I've got to figure this all out," he said, adding he'll wait until after the presidential debates to make up his mind. "I like Mitt a lot and I've been disappointed on some of Obama's things."
Howell said he believes Romney as president would work better with him than with Hatch.
Romney, he said, would want someone from the private sector with Fortune 500 experience over a 36-year incumbent who would try to twist his arm to do things his way.
"Then explain to me why Mitt Romney has endorsed Orrin Hatch," Hansen said. "As soon as Mitt Romney says he wants Scott Howell, then I'll believe that. That is not going to happen."
Howell also intends to use another Liljenquist tactic, challenging Hatch to a debate in each of the state's 29 counties. Every Utahn, he said, should be able to see the two of them side by side. He doesn't think it will happen, however.
"He could not do that. He could not. He wouldn't have the stamina to do that," Howell said. "I'm just being frank with you. He's 78 years old … He's not the same Orrin Hatch I knew 12 years ago."
Hansen said it's too early to make any decisions about the debate schedule. As for Hatch, Hansen said he's as sharp and as energetic as he has every been. No one, he said, questions his physical strength. "He wears out younger guys," Hansen said.
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