Karl Snow's involvement with the controversial merger of two penny-stock companies has "nothing to do with" his qualifications to serve in Congress, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah said Saturday.

Hatch, Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, and Gov. Norm Bangerter, held a news conference at the state Capitol in hopes of shoring up an eroding GOP constituency in the 3rd Congressional District, where Snow is being challenged by Democrat Bill Orton.The Republican big guns also fired a broadside at Orton, who they said was a liberal in conservative swaddling.

Orton and Snow are locked in a bitter race to replace retiring four-term Republican Rep. Howard Nielson. Polls released last month showed Snow with a comfortable 52 percent to 23 percent lead, but that margin apparently has eroded.

The GOP heavyweights grudgingly admitted party defections in the district, due mostly to Orton's success in claiming to be a conservative Democrat who adheres to many GOP values.

The men said they had been meeting personally with some of the renegades, apparently including John Harmer, in hopes of closing party ranks.

Snow was not present at the news conference. His campaign manager, Clark Caras, said he was campaigning in central Utah.

It was the second time in three days the group had met in an effort to shore up the district's GOP constituency.

On Thursday, the men joined Vice President Dan Quayle at an Orem rally to remind residents that the 3rd District is traditionally the most Republican in the country.

Allegations that Snow used his influence as a state senator in the mid-1980s to lure investors into a business deal masterminded by convicted stock swindler Michael Strand - and subsequent charges that he lied about his involvement - also have haunted his campaign.

The three prominent Republicans came to Snow's defense Saturday. Hatch, while saying he knows little about the allegations, said he relies more on his long acquaintance with the candidate.

"I don't think he misrepresented himself," Hatch said. "But I don't know. And I don't care.

"It has nothing to do with his values, his ability and his ethics to serve in the U.S. Congress," the senator said.

"Everybody who knows him says he is the most honest man they've ever met," Hatch said. "I think it's a tempest in a teapot."

"It's irrelevant to this campaign," Bangerter added.

Nielson, who has endorsed Snow, earlier had said he didn't believe Snow was forthcoming about the Global Oil-Unique Battery merger and said the candidate showed "poor judgment" in involving himself with Strand.

Caras has acknowledged those statements stung the candidate and may have hurt the campaign.

During the last few weeks, there has been a blooming "Republicans for Orton" movement in Utah County, which comprises much of the state's geographically largest and politically most conservative district.

"I urge Republicans not to pay attention to some of the nonsense - and it is nonsense - being put out there," Bangerter said. "It's unsubstantiated, and it's false.

Many of the defectors apparently are arch-conservative Republicans who supported John Harmer in the vitriolic GOP primary. Hatch and Bangerter said they have been meeting with some of the wayward party members.

"Some of them wrongfully blamed Karl Snow for the difficulties John Harmer had," Hatch said. "A lot of them are turning and coming back to the fold."

Hatch met recently with Harmer himself, according to Mickey Cochran, who was Harmer's campaign manager.

Telephone messages left at Orton's campaign headquarters were not returned as of Saturday.