SALT LAKE CITY -- U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch faced off against two key opponents Wednesday night in his bid for a seventh term as he participated in his first debate ahead of this month's state Republican convention.
The debate in Draper, attended by 1,400 people, touched on topics ranging from potential military base closures to federal land control but returned repeatedly to the increasing federal debt and growing entitlement programs.
The three candidates also traded barbs over the importance of the seniority and experience that Hatch has made a cornerstone of his campaign, which he has also said would be his last.
With less than three weeks until Utah Republicans choose their candidate, the debate is the best opportunity for the two challengers -- former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod -- to sway delegates in their favor.
The candidates plan to spend most of the remaining days before the April 21 convention attending county gatherings with small groups of delegates in living rooms, cafes and community centers.
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 eventual ouster of former Sen. Robert Bennett.
Liljenquist took the first direct shot Wednesday, and seemed to receive the most applause throughout, asking Hatch how his seniority on the powerful Senate Finance Committee would make a difference since Hatch has already been on the committee for 18 years.
The crowd occasionally appeared to frustrate Hatch, forcing him to shout over their cheers to finish a thought.
He said the difference would come down to two things: Republicans controlling the Senate and Mitt Romney winning the White House.
Romney is hugely popular in Utah because of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his leadership during the 2002 Winter Olympics. He has endorsed Hatch and has appeared in multiple TV and radio ads for the incumbent senator.
"We're going to take over and get things under control," Hatch said.
Hatch drew groans from the crowd after he questioned Liljenquist's defense of missing about a quarter of the votes during his final two years in the state Legislature. Liljenquist explained he was working on Medicaid and pension reforms.
"I wasn't elected to vote on unanimous bills," Liljenquist said, a reference to the many bills passed by state lawmakers without dissent. "I was elected to get things done."
Hatch said it was an important part of an elected official's job to vote, and that during his career he had a 97 percent voting attendance record while still tackling serious issues.
"I can walk and chew gum at the same time," Hatch said.
A second debate is set for April 16 in southern Utah. About a dozen other Republicans also are running, but only Hatch, Liljenquist and Herrod have been invited to participate.
Interest in this year's caucus meetings soared in large part due to an aggressive push to boost attendance by the Utah Republican Party and the Mormon church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City. The Senate race also drew significant interest and prompted historic spending from campaigns. Hatch spent more than $3 million to get supporters to the meetings, while outside groups spent upward of $1.5 million.
Both Liljenquist and Herrod have acknowledged that Hatch's success at the caucus meetings will make it more difficult to topple him at the state convention, where a candidate has to secure 60 percent of the delegate vote to become the nominee. Otherwise, the top two will go to a primary.