SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump has made it clear that he wants to see Sen. Orrin Hatch run for re-election next year, saying in a speech at the Utah Capitol the GOP senator should continue to serve "for a very long time to come."
The president's statement, made as he announced significant reductions Monday to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, followed reports he is working to keep Mitt Romney from seeking Hatch's Senate seat.
It remains to be seen what impact Trump's endorsement has on Romney, the GOP's presidential nominee in 2012 and one of the president's toughest critics during last year's race for the White House.
Romney hasn't spoken publicly about the race, but is said to be readying a campaign. Two of his closest friends in Utah recently told the Deseret News that Romney, 70, was waiting on Hatch, 83, but did not rule out a run even if Hatch seeks an eighth term.
Earlier this year, Hatch suggested he would be ready to end his 42-year Senate career for Romney, the leader of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City and one of the state's most popular politicians.
Hatch, who had told voters when he last ran in 2012 he would not seek re-election, has gone back and forth about his intentions. Two years ago, he said he was having second thoughts about fulfilling his promise not to run again.
"If we were in the middle of tax reform and I thought I could get it done and people thought I could get it done and people were demanding that I get it done, you'd always have to put the country first. We'll just have to see," Hatch said then.
After Trump won the election, Hatch, the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and third in the line of succession as Senate president pro-tempore, said he was getting pressure from colleagues to seek another term.
But in March, Hatch said he'd be willing to retire if he "could get a really outstanding person to run," naming Romney as someone who "would be perfect" for the position. He said if Romney were to run, "it would be a great thing for America."
Lately, Hatch appears to be seriously considering another run.
The spotlight on him during Trump's visit was seen by some as a "soft launch" for a re-election bid. Not only did Hatch take credit for the president coming to Utah, he also escorted him to meet with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the church's Welfare Square.
Trump's less than three hours in Utah "looked a little like a Hatch campaign event," Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said. "It was designed to feature Orrin Hatch."
For some voters, Hatch's relationship with the president is a plus, Karpowitz said, but may drive away others in a state that gave Trump his lowest margin of victory nationwide with just 45.5 percent of the vote.
"I can only imagine how frustrating this is for Mitt Romney, and for supporters of Mitt Romney, who I think have tried to stay out of the way and allow Hatch to make a graceful exit," he said.
"That seems increasingly unlikely."
A Hatch spokesman reiterated Tuesday that the senator still hasn't made up his mind about 2018.
"Sen. Hatch appreciates the support from the president," Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said in a statement. "He has not made a final decision about whether or not to seek re-election, but plans to by the end of the year."
Romney, who labeled Trump a fraud and a phony in a speech at the University of Utah during the Republican presidential primary, has continued to challenge him on some issues despite being considered for a position in the administration.
On Monday, the same day the president flew into Utah on Air Force One with Hatch on board, Romney tweeted that Roy Moore, the embattled Alabama Senate candidate endorsed by Trump, "would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation."
Hatch defended the president's support for Moore, who has denied allegations of sexual misconduct with teenagers, saying Monday, "That's the only Republican we can get down there."
Romney's tweet, however, said, "No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity," and praised the women who have come forward to accuse Moore as "courageous heroes."
Karpowitz said their differences over Moore "could not be more stark. Hatch indicated a willingness to overlook some very serious allegations and Romney indicated there has to be a limit to what Republicans are willing to embrace."
He said that is an example of what a primary fight between Hatch and Romney would look like.
"A Hatch versus Romney race would be a kind of proxy battle for the future of the Republican Party. Is it going to be a party that's content to align itself with Donald Trump or not?"
Sutherland Institute President Boyd Matheson, who considered running for the Senate seat, said Romney "has been absolutely consistent, which Utahns really like, when it comes to issues of leadership and morals."
Matheson said he expects a decision from Hatch about 2018 sometime in January.
Hatch is focused now on getting tax cuts sought by Trump through Congress, but over the holidays, Matheson said he expects him to consider whether "with these great achievements, is it time to step off the stage or is there an additional agenda."
Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, a Democrat already in the Senate race, said she believes that Romney would be a tougher opponent than Hatch.
"Having worked closely with Mitt Romney at the Olympic Games, I would much rather meet Hatch in the general election," she said.
"Hatch continues to demonstrate how firmly tied he is to the broken Washington establishment and that has become only worse since Trump took office. I think Utahns want change."
A UtahPolicy.com poll released Tuesday shows that Utahns are evenly split about the job Hatch is doing for the state in Washington, D.C., with 48 percent saying they approve and 48 percent saying they disapprove.
The poll was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Nov. 16-21, of 600 registered Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Hatch does have hearty support among those who credit him with persuading Trump to slash the size of the national monuments designated by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
"Sen. Hatch is a rock star," said Don Peay, a personal friend of the Trump family and one of the president's key supporters in Utah. "I wish people really understood the power Sen. Hatch has. It won't come Utah's way again for 50 to 100 years, if ever."
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said a Romney run for the Senate can wait.44 comments on this story
"This has been an issue for Hatch for 20 plus years," Noel said, recalling that getting rid of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument named in 1996 was a top priority in Hatch's short-lived presidential bid in 2000.
"It took him a long time, but he's done it now," the lawmaker said. "The majority of my district would support him."
Former Gov. Mike Leavitt, a top campaign adviser to Romney in 2016, said he's not sure how the race will shake out.
"This is going to boil down to what Orrin Hatch wants to do," Leavitt said. "The question is, does that mean he goes out on a high or does it mean he doesn't want to set it aside because he wants to do more? I don't know."