Can Hatch Tame The Tea Party?

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Before the Tea Party emerged, it was unthinkable that a solid conservative like six-term Senator Orrin Hatch would have to fret about losing a Republican primary. Now Hatch, who faces re-election next year, is scrambling to defuse tensions with the movement that unseated his closest colleague in 2010.

It won't be easy. Hatch has backed the bank bailouts, earmarks and the Dream Act, which would give citizenship to some illegal immigrants. He's partnered with Democrats like the late Ted Kennedy. By any standard, he flunks the Tea Party purity test.

His state's political process worsens his plight. Utah's 3,500 GOP delegates have the power to pick the party's nominee--and they're an unforgiving bunch. Last May, in the movement's first victory, those activists dumped the state's junior Senator, Bob Bennett, another conservative who had cast some heretical votes, in favor of a young rebel from their ranks.

Hatch is determined to avoid the same fate. That's why he turned up at a Feb. 8 Tea Party Express town hall in Washington alongside movement stars like Representative Michele Bachmann, Senator Rand Paul and Mike Lee, the guy who took Bennett's job. It was no lovefest. Tea Party Express chairwoman Amy Kremer welcomed Hatch with all the enthusiasm of a sports-arena announcer introducing the visiting team. Hatch thanked the Tea Party for its work and laced his remarks with jabs at last year's health care reform law and bromides about taking America back. The crowd's response was muted. When Hatch mentioned his 34 years in the Senate, one activist muttered that it was time to "move on."

But even if the Tea Party hasn't fully warmed to Hatch, the Senator's persistent efforts are thawing the frost. When Hatch asked to speak at the Utah Tea Party's first gathering in the spring of 2009, "we basically told him to drop dead," says the group's founder, David Kirkham. Undeterred, Hatch invited Kirkham to his office for a long meeting, and the two have since spoken regularly. At the same time, Hatch's recent voting record suggests he's sipping the tea. He's given up earmarks, dropped his support for the Dream Act and backtracked from his TARP vote.

Taking no chances, Hatch is off to his earliest start ever in a re-election bid, says his campaign manager, Dave Hansen. Hatch has already hired campaign advisers and built up his war chest to $2.5 million. Could he finagle an endorsement from a group founded in part to end his career? "No chance," says Kirkham. "An endorsement is one thing. Tolerance is another." Hatch will take it. Better to be tolerated than targeted.