SANDY, Utah -- Utah Republicans denied U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch a clear path to a seventh and final term Saturday, forcing the 78-year-old lawmaker into a June primary with 37-year-old former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist. Hatch fell short of the outright nomination by fewer than three dozen votes from the nearly 4,000 delegates at the party convention.
Despite the setback, Hatch 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 be the heavy favorite in November because of GOP dominance in Utah.
"A few months ago, a lot of people weren't giving me a chance," Hatch said. "So I feel good. I consider it a victory with everything that happened in the past."
Hatch urged delegates to endorse him so he can help repeal President Obama's health care law and, potentially, lead the powerful Senate Finance Committee if Republicans regain control of the chamber in November. He contended that he was only candidate who had the ability to enact the GOP's priorities from Day One of the next congressional session.
"I'm a tough old bird, and I've never felt more eager," he said.
But Liljenquist said Hatch's seniority was overrated, adding that he was ready to work with freshmen Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky in changing how the Senate works.
"It is time for a new generation of leaders," he said shortly after the results were announced. "We know it to our bones."
In Utah, elected delegates get first crack at determining whether a candidate should earn the nomination outright.
In all, 10 candidates ran for the Senate seat and took turns Saturday attempting to convince the delegates to support them. Hatch and Liljenquist advanced from the first round of voting after Hatch got 57 percent of the vote and his challenger took 28 percent.
In the second round, the incumbent earned 59.2 percent of the vote, just short of the 60 percent needed for the outright nomination. As a result, they will face each other in the June 26 primary.
Hatch began laying the groundwork for the convention even before he watched former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett lose to a tea party challenger two years ago. With a game plan designed to answer his critics' claims -- and with a boost from GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney -- it became clear he wouldn't experience a similar fate.