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SALT LAKE CITY — Dueling views over Utah's senior U.S. senator dominated Thursday's GOP caucus meetings, where stunning turnout pitted packed rooms of delegates against each other over Orrin Hatch's fate.
Republican faithful practically mobbed meeting places like school cafeterias, gymnasiums and homes, with observers noting that in some cases the precinct meetings easily attracted eight, nine or even 10 times the attendance of years past.
Our preliminary estimates are a statewide turnout of at least 125,000 Republicans and as high as 200,000. Voters were heard loud and clear tonight.
–Thomas Wright, Utah GOP chairman
“I am amazed by the number of citizens who took action and attended their neighborhood caucus tonight," said state party Chairman Thomas Wright. "Our preliminary estimates are a statewide turnout of at least 125,000 Republicans and as high as 200,000. Voters were heard loud and clear tonight.”
Inspired by a concentrated, well-moneyed tea party campaign to secure Hatch's ouster, the six-term senator responded with rival urgency, delving into his own war chest to fire back with an army of his supporters dispatched to numerous precincts statewide, where 4,000 delegates were elected.
Discussion on Hatch dominates debates
At Centerville Junior High School, for example, a motion made in the precinct meeting prior to voting required anyone nominated as a delegate to state their opinion about 77-year-old Hatch.
"I think Brother Hatch has had a lot of time in office, and I'm predisposed not to vote for him," said Jim Peterson, a state delegate nominee in Centerville's Precinct 8.
"I do not support Hatch," said Scott Sly, another state delegate nominee. "He's been there long enough."
I think Brother Hatch has had a lot of time in office, and I'm predisposed not to vote for him.
–Jim Peterson, a state delegate nominee
Doug Cummings, the precinct's chairman and a county delegate for the past two years, was among the minority of nominees who declared their support for keeping Hatch in Washington, D.C.
But Cummings was also the top vote-getter following the first round of secret balloting, earning him one of the precinct's three state delegate spots.
"The name of the game in Washington is experience and seniority," Cummings said. "Utah has an opportunity to have the chairman of the Finance Committee. I support Orrin Hatch."
Roughly 115 people packed into a classroom to select delegates in the precinct — "by far the most we've ever had," said Paul Cutler, the precinct's vice chairman for the past two years.
Cutler, also a state delegate nominee, voiced his support for former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful, a Hatch opponent.
Karl Hiller, another state delegate nominee, used his one-minute of floor time to lash out at FreedomWorks, the Washington, D.C.-based tea party organization that has mounted a campaign to oust Hatch.
Even those caucus participants clinging to indecision over Hatch were determined to participate in the process, still stung by having their voice silenced at the state GOP convention two years ago when then-incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett was abruptly eliminated from contention.
"I'm feeling a little undecided, even right now," Tanya Lewis said. "It's hard to advocate giving up all that seniority that we have in the senate with Hatch there."
Lewis, president of the Women's Republican Club of Salt Lake, attended the caucus meeting at South Jordan's Elk Ridge Middle School in hopes of being selected as a state delegate. It was her first experience with the Utah caucus system since moving here from Nevada.
It was clear in this meeting that views on education or taxes were easily trumped by questions aimed at determining how the potential delegate planned to vote in the Hatch contest at state GOP convention. While there were strong feelings clearly against or in favor of Hatch, a large number of the participants were caught somewhere in the middle.
For Mack Christensen, a veteran caucus attendee, there was no middle ground on Hatch.
"He's been there too long and he's not as conservative as he thinks he is," Christensen said. "He doesn't even know Utah anymore he's been there so long."
Farther south in Utah County, Mitt Romney's influence showed up in a band room crammed with more than 150 people at Lone Peak High School.
The endorsement of Hatch by the presidential hopeful was at a factor when it came time to select delegates, with nominees being grilled over their non-support of the senator, especially if they were Romney fans.
“I think Sen. Hatch has been in Washington a little too long,” said Robin Allred, who was running to be a delegate. “He’s had 36 years in Washington to do his thing.”
Many people said although they weren’t excited about Hatch being reelected, they acknowledged the importance of him being the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. Others said they took Romney’s endorsement of Hatch seriously.
“For a long time, I was so annoyed by Hatch. I thought he’d been in there for so long,” said Peggy Rowell, newly-elected precinct chairwoman.
Rowell said she used to support Republican challenger Dan Liljenquist, and even donated to his campaign before Romney’s Hatch endorsement.
Utah's new 4th Congressional District a hot topic
Aside from the Hatch question that permeated the high school meetings, participants at Elk Ridge had the opportunity to ponder who may secure the nomination for the newly-created 4th Congressional District. With no incumbent and five Republicans filing to run for that office, many potential delegates said they did not yet have enough information to anticipate who they would vote for at the convention.
For Lewis, she said a candidate's experience would be a key deciding factor in her support, but added that she's been impressed with Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who she described as an "up and comer."
"It's interesting for me to see her maturation in this," Lewis said. "I think her star is very bright."
The delegates chosen Thursday night will cast their votes at the April 21 state GOP convention to narrow the field of contenders for the senate, congressional and other statewide races to either the two top candidates to face off in a June primary or pick a lone nominee for the general election.
Contributing: Richard Piatt and Amy Joi O'Donoghue