SALT LAKE CITY – A new Deseret News-KSL poll shows Rep. Jason Chaffetz is just 10 points behind Sen. Orrin Hatch, even though he isn't in the race — yet.
In a GOP primary, 44 percent of the Utahns surveyed statewide said they'd vote for Hatch over Chaffetz, while 34 percent picked the congressman over the senator.
Hatch also led Chaffetz among the poll respondents who identified themselves as Republicans, 51-35 percent. But those who called themselves "very conservative" chose Chaffetz over Hatch, again 51-35 percent.
The poll, conduced Feb. 8-10 by Dan Jones & Associates of 496 residents, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent. The firm has conducted research for Hatch.
The results suggest Hatch is vulnerable in his 2012 reelection bid, University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Monday.
"The concern Hatch's people have had all along is somebody like a Rep. Chaffetz would be a big risk to them because he would be seen as a newer face," Burbank said.
Hatch has been trying to shore up his conservative credentials, Burbank said, to avoid facing the same sort of anti-establishment "revolt" that ended former Sen. Bob Bennett's reelection bid at last year's state GOP convention.
Whether that's enough, though, remains to be seen.
"The big risk he has is he's been in Washington a long time," Burbank said. "Usually, what you see with these kinds of very early polls is incumbents have this overwhelming advantage because they have this great recognition."
Chaffetz, 43, referenced the difference in age and experience in Washington between himself and Hatch in reacting to the poll.
"Not bad for a rookie. I'm excited. What an honor," Chaffetz told the Deseret News Monday. "I was nine years old when he took office."
Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, dismissed the comments.
"Everyone knows how old he is. Everyone knows how long he's served. Nobody is trying to hide that," Hansen said of Hatch. "He's the youngest, hardest working 76 year old I've ever known."
Hansen also downplayed the poll results, saying it's too soon to speculate.
"The numbers at this point in time really don't mean a lot," Hansen said. "Obviously, in any election cycle you'd rather be ahead than behind and that's where he is and he's happy about that."
Chaffetz still will only go so far as to say a run for the Senate is "a definite maybe." However, he said he now intends to make his decision before this fall.
"I'm in no rush, but I am sensitive to the idea other people are thinking of running for the House or the Senate," Chaffetz said. "I may very well want to stay in the House."
But he said he is "in a unique position to be a strong challenger," citing his strength among the most conservative Utahns, especially Republican delegates.
"I laugh when people say they don't pay any attention to these things. Of course they do," Chaffetz said of the poll. "I think the senator would be mistaken if he thinks he's going to waltz to the finish line as he has in elections past — no matter who runs."
Hansen said Hatch is attempting to remind the party faithful he hasn't changed his politics since he was first elected in 1976.
"He is a conservative Republican and always has been a conservative Republican," Hansen said. "When it comes down to it in the end, Sen. Hatch is going to be senator again."
Utah County tea party organizer David Kirkham isn’t so sure.
“I think it’s going to depend on what Hatch does,” Kirkham said. What tea party followers are looking for, he said, is a candidate who demonstrates fiscal responsiblity. “I think many people in the tea party, lately, are happy with votes that he has done lately” but “absolutely not” his past positions.
Contributing: John Hollenhorst