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The Utah Wannabes

The Possibility of an Open Senate Seat Stirs Talk on Hill, in State

With Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said to be a possible candidate to take over the Bush administration’s embattled Justice Department, Utah GOP Senate wannabes are queuing up to potentially fill a rare midterm Senate vacancy.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert two weeks ago, Hatch suggested he might entertain a White House request to fill a vacancy, should Attorney General Alberto Gonzales step aside amid the ongoing scandal involving the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Hatch’s office declined to provide comment to Roll Call, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) joked to Russert that Hatch hardly has been shy about his desire to have his name in the running as a possible Gonzales successor.

“Rumor on the Hill [the week of March 25] was he was actively running for it,” Leahy quipped.

In the wake of a Hatch exit, Utah Republican Party spokesman Jeff Hartley’s list of potential Republican Senate replacements numbers at least a dozen and includes in the running most of the state’s top public-sector executives, senior state and federal lawmakers and GOP party officials.

If Hatch departs, Hartley said Utah law would require the state Republican Party to provide Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. with the names of three replacements. Huntsman’s pick would serve a temporary term until January 2009. And the winner of an off-year November 2008 election then would serve the remainder of Hatch’s normal term that expires in 2012.

Conventional wisdom among the Utah GOP faithful, Hartley said, is that Provo-based Rep. Chris Cannon (R) and Salt Lake City-based Rep. Rob Bishop (R) would be near the top of the list.

Huntsman’s top choice? Himself, said one House GOP aide.

“Just because he’s the governor and can appoint himself — and he’d probably like to do that — I would say he would be the frontrunner,” the aide said of Huntsman, whose office declined to discuss the matter. “Cannon would be a close second. If the governor didn’t want to do it, Cannon would be the frontrunner.”

But the House GOP aide, who confirmed Cannon has held discussions on the possible Senate vacancy with Utah GOP officials, also said Cannon may not stand idly by if Huntsman steps down to allow his lieutenant governor to coronate him. Adding to the intrigue, Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, too, is said to harbor Senatorial ambition.

If Hatch resigns, “I wouldn’t anticipate [Cannon] definitely stepping aside,” the aide said. Cannon and Huntsman “have a good relationship, but [Cannon] has been involved for 12 years in the D.C. area.”

“I think [Cannon] would feel it might be something he’s very qualified for,” the aide added.

State party spokesman Hartley also said Beehive State native and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt is another possible contender. State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, state Speaker Greg Curtis, Republican National Committeeman Fred Lampropoulos and Utah Republican Party Vice Chairman Todd Weiler, too, are all rumored to be mulling future Senate bids.

In the event Hatch quits early to join the Bush White House but vows to regain his seat in a special 2008 election, the field could change dramatically, Hartley said.

After all, Hatch still has roughly $2 million left over from his successful 2006 campaign and there are undeniable long-term perks to being a lawmaker — if only a short-term one.

“I guess the one question is do you still get lifetime privileges on the floor of the Senate?” Hartley asked. “I’d sign up if you did.”

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