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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Christopher Herrod

SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and his key Republican challengers met in their second and final debate before this weekend's state convention, with each emphasizing their strengths in a final push for delegate votes.

Like their previous debate several weeks ago, Monday night's affair between Hatch, state Rep. Chris Herrod and former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist on the campus of Dixie State College in St. George was congenial and didn't deliver the expected blows aimed at the incumbent senator. Candidates focused on the expansion of federal powers, the growing national debt and energy development.

Hatch has emphasized repeatedly the importance of his congressional seniority, especially the power he has over the federal budget as the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. He continued to do that Monday, making it clear to delegates that losing his influence in Washington will significantly hamper efforts to balance the budget and open the state's public lands to oil and natural gas exploration.

"I'll be effective on Day One. I know what to do because experience really does count," Hatch said. "I'm a tough old bird. If you give me one more term, I will make a difference."

The two challengers, however, said Hatch has served in Washington during a time when the federal debt increased rapidly and the powers of the executive branch expanded significantly. They returned to that point on questions about the budget, U.S. Supreme Court appointments and the ability of a president to skirt congressional approval for military attacks.

"It's one thing to say that you think Congress should have a say, but when you're in Congress, you have to demand that Congress have a say," Liljenquist said.

Based on initial observations from all sides, Hatch had strong support among Republicans who attended caucus meetings in late March and elected the 4,000 delegates who will go to the state convention. In particular, attendees lacked the anti-incumbent sentiment that was palatable in 2010 and led to the ouster of three-term U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett.

Despite Hatch's apparent advantage heading into Saturday's convention, Herrod and Liljenquist avoided aggressive attacks or cheap shots against the incumbent. The crowd was also respectful, applauding every answer without overtly favoring any one candidate.

The candidates have been spending the remaining days before the convention attending county gatherings with small groups of delegates in living rooms, cafes and community centers, attempting to grab every vote, one handshake at a time.

Hatch needs to secure 60 percent of the delegate vote during Saturday's convention to avoid a primary.