SALT LAKE CITY -- U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch faced his challenger Friday in the pair's only debate ahead of the June 26 primary when voters will decide whether to send the longtime senator back to Washington for a seventh and final term.
Hatch rebuffed efforts by former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist to face off in televised debates, and turned down an offer by KSL for a primetime event, instead agreeing only to appear on a morning political radio show. Hatch said he wanted to focus more on town hall meetings.
The hour-long debate was broadcast live on KSL Newsradio with host Doug Wright, who served as the moderator.
Hatch said voters should send him back to Washington because he has the seniority and know-how to save programs like Social Security and Medicaid.
"We've got to get it under control or our kids and our grandkids aren't going to have a very great future," Hatch said in his opening remarks. "Our country is at a crossroads. We're either going to go farther down or going to start picking up."
Hatch played up his seniority, arguing he is the only candidate who has the ability to enact the Republican Party's priorities from day one of the next congressional session. He also noted that he will potentially lead the powerful Senate Finance Committee if Republicans regain control of the chamber in the November general election.
"Literally 60 percent of the budget comes through that committee," Hatch said Friday.
Liljenquist said it's time for new leadership in Washington after years of "wasteful" earmarks and rising debt.
He criticized Hatch for voting to gut Medicare and Social Security, and said the longtime senator has a history of supporting wasteful earmarks to campaign contributors, noting his placement on the powerful Senate committee is a detriment to constituents, not a benefit.
"I am running for senator because you could be chair of the Senate Finance Committee, not in spite of it," Liljenquist said. "We have got to have new leaders in Washington ... who will do more than just talk about reforming."
Hatch was forced into a primary after Utah Republicans denied the incumbent senator a clear path to the general election at the state party convention in April, where he fell short of the outright nomination by fewer than three dozen votes from the nearly 4,000 delegates.
Despite the setback, the 78-year-old lawmaker holds a significant fundraising edge in what has become the stiffest challenge since his election to the Senate in 1976. The eventual Republican nominee will face Democrat Scott Howell, who lost to Hatch in 2000. Utah has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1970.
"A few months ago, a lot of people weren't giving me a chance. So I feel good. I consider it a victory with everything that happened in the past," Hatch said after the convention.
The 2010 convention saw the ouster of three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in an upset fueled by a tea party surge. Hatch had been working feverishly to avoid the same fate.
Liljenquist, 37, has tried to convince voters that Hatch's time has come, that a new generation of lawmakers is needed in Washington.