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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/ 9/2011

Orrin Hatch courts tea party activists, Tea Party Express divided

By Rachel Weiner

Sen. Orrin Hatch faced down tea party activists at a town hall event hosted by Tea Party Express Tuesday night, the latest effort by the Utah Republican to prove his conservative credentials in advance of his 2012 reelection race.

There are "lots of great tea party activists in Utah," Hatch said. "They suggested I hold town halls and I got over 500 angry people at each."

All the other guests at the town hall, which was held at the National Press Club in Washington, are well-known tea party figures: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Tea Party Express strategist Sal Russo, a longtime friend and former campaign consultant for Hatch, said he invited the senator. Tea Party Express Chairman Amy Kremer said she believed that Hatch asked to come. Russo chalked the mixed messages up to poor internal communication. "We were just all traveling in different places and no one knew who did what," he said.

That confusion extends to the group's approach to Hatch generally. Hatch initially told reporters that the Tea Party Express was supporting him, before catching himself and saying "some Tea Party Express people have." Russo told National Review last week that the group would not target Hatch. A day later, Kremer told The Hill that the group was still open to other candidates in the race. (Rep. Jason Chaffetz has expressed interest in the possibility of challenging Hatch in 2012.)

He didn't get the most enthusiastic reception, but Hatch stayed at the event the longest and seemed the most eager to talk. "We don't need a break," he said when moderators suggested one. "We might not look like much, but we're a tough bunch, let me tell you."

While he repeatedly mentioned his 34 years in Congress, Hatch argued that he had spent that time fighting for conservative values. The party never had a "fiscal conservative majority," he said, because of moderate Northeastern Republican senators.

"I've been received courteously" by tea party people, the senator said after the town hall. "Rude" town hall attendees who had shouted at him last summer, he declared, "were not tea party people," they were "other party people." He predicted that Utah voters would not give up the man who would head of the powerful Senate Finance Committee should Republicans retake the Senate in 2012.

Because of Utah's odd nominating process, Hatch's fate is in the hands of a few thousand of state's the most conservative voters.

Jason Hoyt, a tea party activist from Florida, said that Hatch showed he was a "smart politician" by coming, but "at the end of the day, it's about actions, it's about votes ... he's operated in the middle before."

"It doesn't matter what Tea Party Express decides to do," Kremer told reporters, "because ... with or without Tea Party Express," the people of Utah would make the call.

At least one other person from Utah was present -- Lee, who defeated longtime senator Bob Bennett at the state Republican convention last year and went on to win a primary fight over Tim Bridgewater. (Utah's unique nominating process revolves around the state convention where a candidate must receive at least 40 percent of the vote to force a primary.)

Asked after the town hall if he was endorsing Hatch for reelection, Lee would say only: "I look forward to him joining the tea party caucus."

By Rachel Weiner  | February 9, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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