Santorum endorses Hatch's opponent in Utah primary

Rick Santorum took sides in Utah's Republican Senate primary on Friday, endorsing challenger Dan Liljenquist over his former colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch.

"Dan Liljenquist is the stronger conservative in this race," Santorum said in an email to supporters of his new advocacy group Patriot Voices. "I've known Orrin Hatch for years and believe he is a very good man, but in a deeply conservative state like Utah, we must elect authentic conservatives. I believe Dan Liljenquist is that candidate."

The endorsement injects energy into the Liljenquist campaign, which has been struggling to compete against the well-connected and well-funded incumbent. The two candidates also met on Friday for their only face-to-face debate before this month's primary.

Hatch, a 36-year Senate veteran, has long been targeted for defeat by tea party activists who argue that he has been too moderate. The party faithful who shared that sentiment helped force Hatch into a primary with Liljenquist at the state convention in April, narrowly preventing Hatch from winning the 60 percent necessary to win the nomination outright.

But Hatch's 59 percent finish, his widespread support and Liljenquist's newcomer status all pointed to a clear Hatch victory in the June primary. After the convention, some tea party figures even threw their support to Hatch, including Sarah Palin (who earned significant criticism for her endorsement.) The American Conservative Union endorsed Hatch on Friday.

Until now, Hatch has refused to go toe-to-toe with Liljenquist, initially refusing all debate requests. After sustained criticism, Hatch agreed to a face-to-face radio debate Friday on KSL's "Doug Wright Show," and sparred with Liljenquist as if he was a serious threat to his campaign.

When Liljenquist accused the senator of suggesting that he alone controlled the Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) process, Hatch vehemently defended himself. "Dan, you don't know what you're talking about," Hatch, a former boxer, told his opponent. The senator noted he had received the highest civilian award from the Air Force for his efforts, and that he and other lawmakers were essential to saving Hill Air Force Base in Ogden.

Hatch also said it was "B.S." that Liljenquist is attempting to hold the senator responsible for "everything that is wrong with the federal government." Liljenquist had argued yet again that Hatch's seniority and experience has only pushed the nation further into debt.

At the conclusion of the debate, Hatch refused to ask his opponent a question when offered the opportunity, instead criticizing Liljenquist for repeating attacks originating from tea party group FreedomWorks, which Hatch referred to as "the sleaziest bunch."

Early voting is currently underway ahead of the June 26 primary.

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