SALT LAKE CITY — The only agreed upon debate between Sen. Orrin Hatch and his GOP primary challenger, Dan Liljenquist, is set for June 15 on KSL Newsradio.
Radio host Doug Wright announced Tuesday that the six-term senator will square off against the former state lawmaker for an hour-long, commercial-free debate that will begin at 9 a.m., 10 days before the June 26 primary.
Liljenquist's campaign has criticized Hatch for refusing to engage in debates following April's state GOP convention, when delegates failed to give Hatch enough support to avoid the run-off election.
Hatch has rejected offers to participate in televised debates, including allowing the radio debate to be videotaped for rebroadcast on KSL-TV. However, the radio debate will be open to television cameras from all media outlets.
Liljenquist is scheduled Thursday to stage what his campaign is calling a "mock debate" featuring a cardboard cutout of Hatch accompanied by audio recordings of the senator's stands on various issues.
It's not clear what impact the debate over debates is having on the race.
A Utah Policy.com report Tuesday suggested that Hatch's internal polling is finding that voters aren't being swayed by Liljenquist's call for more debates, a report Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen called "pretty accurate."
Hansen declined to provide details of the polling. "There are a whole lot of other issues that voters out there are concerned with other than how many debates the candidates are having."
He said Hatch is focusing on meeting voters directly and appeared earlier this year with Liljenquist some 19 times, including at Republican county conventions and at two debates.
Holly Richardson, Liljenquist's campaign chairwoman, said the debate issue is winning over voters. She said the campaign had not done its own polling, but based its opinion on interactions with voters.
"We actually do have some very good indicators that momentum is swinging our way," she said.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said it's the Hatch campaign that's likely right about how much impact candidate debates will have on the election.
"Voters care a whole lot less about this than the candidates do," Burbank said. "Obviously, this is the one avenue Liljenquist has to criticize Sen. Hatch. You play the cards you have."
Hatch clearly benefits from as few debates as possible, Burbank said.
"He has all the advantages. Voters know a lot about him. They know less about his challenger. In that circumstance, he's likely to win the primary," the professor said. "It's very easy to vote for someone you know."
A slight majority of Republican and Democratic political insiders asked last week about the debate issue by Utah Policy.com and KSL said they believed Liljenquist was getting "a little" traction with voters but not enough to make a difference in the election.
Last month, KSL and the Deseret News offered the candidates an hour-long prime time debate in early June. Liljenquist agreed, but Hatch said no. Just days later, Hatch's campaign agreed to a debate on KSL Newsradio but refused to allow it to be televised.
"We always knew there was going to be a debate," Hansen said. "We just figured that the radio format is best to be kept in that format. People will have a chance to hear the candidates and listen to them discuss the issues and make decisions from there."
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