SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch acknowledged Tuesday that a seventh term in the U.S. Senate would be his last.
At the same time, a national tea party group continues to wage a campaign to end the Republican senator's long career this year.
Speaking at a news conference about Utah's effort to gain control of federal lands in the state, Hatch, who turns 78 next week, said he was a leader of the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in his first term and wants to "end the need for any further Sagebrush Rebellion during my last term in the Senate."
That assumes the six-term Republican wins re-election in 2012. Asked several months ago, Hatch was less clear about running for what would be an eighth term at age 84, saying he probably wouldn't run again.
Hatch campaign manager Dave Hanson said Hatch wants to "get it out there in a definitive way so people understood" he won't run again. Hatch, he said, sees it fitting to end his career on an issue that it began on.
Opponents, though, are pulling out all the stops to end his tenure this year. Hatch faces what may be his toughest run for office since being elected in 1976.
FreedomWorks, a tea party organization based in Washington, D.C., has spent $615,000 on a "Retire Hatch" campaign. Former GOP state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, are among those challenging Hatch inside the party.
"It really doesn't matter if it's his last term. Thirty-six years is too long," said Russ Walker, FreedomWorks vice president for political and grassroots campaigns.
The group has been holding meetings around the state encouraging residents to get elected as GOP delegates in order to defeat Hatch.
Ray Nelson, an Orem Republican who has attended past GOP caucuses, said he recently got a dozen calls from FreedomWorks urging him to come to a meeting, which he eventually did. But he was not impressed with the negative tone of the meeting.
"I was, I guess, somewhat surprised with the intensity of the emotion," Nelson said. "I was just quite totally turned off by the thought that they would do that by subverting the intent of the caucus system."
The drive for supporters culminates Thursday night at neighborhood caucuses where delegates to state Republican Party convention will be selected. Those delegates choose candidates at the convention.
Hatch said he's "always concerned" about caucus night, but added, "Let me just say this, we're gonna win this."
He called the campaign to oust him a "little more vicious" and described FreedomWorks as "loud mouths" who have nothing do with Utah but want to control its Republican Party.
"If we let those people come in here and take over this state I mean, my gosh, it's going to be a mess here," Hatch said. "I'm running a strong campaign to make sure that doesn't happen."
Walker said ads backing Hatch likewise come from outside money. "And if you actually look at where (the ads) come from, they come mostly from D.C. PACs, D.C. special interests and Wall Street special interests," he said.
FreedomWorks has 15,000 supporters in Utah, which exceeds the number of Utahns who contribute to the Hatch campaign, Walker said.
Contributing: John Daley