Muhammad Ali wants Sen. Orrin Hatch to run for president in 1996. And he said he would vote for him this year for president if he could.

Ali's not kidding, although the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world did a bit of that Wednesday night at a reception for the Utah delegation and friends in the Marriott Hotel.Ali had buttons made that said "Bush in 1988 - Hatch in 1996." Ali also wore an Orrin Hatch re-election button and an "I love Utah" button.

The reception was a highlight for the delegation. Hundreds packed the room, and Ali and Hatch had their pictures taken with the delegates for half an hour.

In an interview with the Deseret News after the reception, Ali said he wants to see Hatch run for president "very, very much."

"I want to tell black people that Republicanism doesn't equate to racism. When Orrin Hatch speaks, he speaks for all Americans, for truth and justice. I believe that with all my heart."

Hatch is "bright, pretty, articulate and a leader," Ali said. "I'll do anything for him. I'm coming to Salt Lake City (to campaign for Hatch) because I asked to. I invited myself to come and help him in his election."

Before the big fights of his career, Ali always made predictions on their outcomes. More often than not, he was right.

"I predict Orrin Hatch will be president before the year 2000," Ali said.

Ali arrived a bit late to the reception. Aides to Hatch said Vice President George Bush's campaign officials found out about Ali's visit to the convention and wanted to get in the picture. They picked Ali up at the airport and talked to him for some time, asking him to endorse Bush.

Asked if he came to the convention to support Bush, Ali said softly, "That's why I'm here."

Ali told the Deseret News, "I support Bush because Orrin Hatch explained to me how important it is for George Bush to become the leader of the free world. But I'd vote for Hatch if I could."

Ali's wife, Lonnie, said the champ admires the style of Bush and Hatch, and endorsed Ronald Reagan in the past. "He isn't really a Republican. He just supports people when he likes their style, and he loves the style of Sen. Hatch."

Ali said little at the reception. When he did, he spoke so softly that those nearby had to lean next to his face to hear him. Those a step away couldn't hear at all.

Ali suffers from Parkinson's Syndrome. His mind is still quick, but his speech is slow and soft. He is still strong, however. He easily lifted Utah delegate Michael Jones' son, Marc, to his shoulder for a picture.

But gone are the days of the quick, rapid-fire rhetoric that made Ali a favorite of the press and a hero to blacks and minorities throughout the world. And his lawyer said Ali was especially tired Wednesday as he was still adjusting to new medication for his illness.

Even though fatigued, Ali's mere presence excited those who crowded around him, calling him "champ" and wanting to shake his hand. Word spread that Ali was in the hotel and dozens of uninvited Republicans crowded into the room to see him.

Hatch aides were worried that Ali wouldn't make the reception. He wasn't feeling well Tuesday because of the new medication, they said. But Ali didn't want to disappoint Hatch and so came to New Orleans anyway.

Ali is also scheduled to hold a reception for Hatch Sept. 1 in Salt Lake City as part of Hatch's official re-election campaign kickoff.

Hatch met Ali for the first time last year and says today they are fast friends.

Ali called Hatch to ask that he support a friend of Ali's who wanted to be appointed to a Justice Department post. Hatch is on the Senate Judiciary Committee that reviews those presidential appointments.

Hatch gladly helped. The man got the job and soon thereafter Ali showed up unannounced at Hatch's Senate office and gave Hatch an autographed boxing bag.

The two talked for several hours. Later, Ali called Hatch and said he wanted to help on Hatch's re-election campaign.

"He is one of the greatest human beings I have ever met," Hatch said Wednesday night, his arm around Ali. "He is so generous. He gave me a framed group of his memorabilia, in the center is one of the four championship buckles he won. It is one of my greatest treasures," Hatch said.

Ali joked with a number of delegates who posed for pictures with him and Hatch.

To one woman with bright red hair, Ali whispered, "very pretty," and reached out and touched her hair. She was a bit taken aback, and responded, "Oh, thank you. Uhh, your hair is very nice also." Ali just smiled at her.

Delegate Alex Hurtado posed with his daughters. Ali leaned down and said to the diminutive Hurtado, "They are better looking than you."