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Bob Bennett

Believe it or not, some Utahns are already looking at races for 2010.

Perhaps the most prominent is GOP Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who says he's considering running against Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, next year.

This would be a "free" race for Shurtleff, since he won re-election last November to a third four-year term. Shurtleff could run against Bennett, and if the attorney general lost that Republican Party challenge, he would still be in office for two more years.

Shurtleff says he'll decide soon whether or not to challenge Bennett — who has already announced he's running again.

I'm guessing that in the end, Shurtleff won't run against Bennett.

After winning a few Salt Lake County Commission races and statewide office as attorney general three times, Shurtleff doesn't want the term "loser" tagged to him before 2012.

And I see that year as the big breakout contests for the Utah GOP.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will face re-election that year, should he decide to seek a seventh six-year term.

The senator hasn't said if he'll run or not, but he's hired a full-time campaign consultant, Dave Hansen, to prepare the road, should he decide to walk it.

Hatch has had his problems with Utah's GOP right wing before — the people with the strongest say in the State Republican Convention — especially over his support of a new federal entitlement program, the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.

GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has already said that he won't seek another term, and he leaves office in 2012.

If Hatch didn't run again, Utah would have two major open offices, U.S. Senate and governor.

If Shurtleff ran for higher office then, his office would be open, too.

2012 will also be the first congressional elections after the 2011 redistricting.

And it is possible, even likely, that the GOP-dominated Legislature could redraw U.S. House district lines to open up new political opportunities.

The last time so many big offices were in play was 1992, and a truckload of good GOP and Democratic candidates came forward that year.

We ended 1992 with a new U.S. senator (Bennett), a new governor (Mike Leavitt), a new congresswoman (Karen Shepherd) and a new attorney general (Jan Graham) — two Republicans and two Democrats.

It takes a lot of cash to run for a statewide or federal office.

And Shurtleff will have to get started if he wants $500,000 or so in the bank when he goes into the spring 2010 convention and (hopefully for him) a June GOP primary election.

But taking on Bennett will be a big, difficult task. A January poll for the Deseret News and KSL-TV by Dan Jones & Associates found that 80 percent of Republicans approve of the job Bennett is doing, while 83 percent of those who said they are "very conservative" give him good job-approval ratings.

And Shurtleff and other big-name GOP candidates may decide discretion is the better part of valor and wait until 2012 and either an open U.S. Senate seat — or a Hatch who has trouble with the party's right wing — and an open governor's office.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com.