By Debbie Hummel
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - As Utah Republicans head for a state nominating convention on Saturday, a poll suggests that veteran U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch will survive a bid by Tea Party challengers to unseat him as delegates take a more moderate turn.
Heavily Republican Utah last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate more than four decades ago, so the victor in the state's Republican party contest is usually considered the presumptive winner of the general election in November.
For a senior stalwart of the party's mainstream like Hatch, the ranking Republican on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, a seat in the U.S. Senate has long been seen as his to lose. Hatch, 78, was first elected in 1976 and says this next term will be his last.
But he must first survive the nominating contest to avoid the fate of Bob Bennett, a former Republican senator from Utah whose 2010 re-election run foundered over conservative outrage at the healthcare overhaul pushed by President Barack Obama, leading to a revolt against the Republican establishment by state Tea Party activists.
The poll, released this week by The Utah Foundation and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, showed Hatch was close to having the support of 60 percent of delegates in Saturday's convention needed to spare him from a primary run-off.
The poll also showed that while party delegates still have more zealous positions on the issues than the voting public, those differences are not as pronounced as in the past.
"They've chosen delegates that are more moderate in their views and more representative of the voting population," said Morgan Lyon Cotti, research director for the Utah Foundation, citing a decline in support for the Tea Party among both voters and delegates.
"Instead of being concerned about some issues that can be pretty divisive between Republicans and Democrats, like states issues, immigration and gun control, we saw that some of those things had fallen out of the top 10 and one of the top concerns was partisan politics," she said.
Among the differences from a similar poll two years ago was that 44 percent of delegates said it was important to re-elect an incumbent senator to maintain seniority in Washington. In 2010, that number was 17 percent, Lyon Cotti said.
The shift bodes well for Hatch, and 59 percent of Republican delegates polled favor sending him back to Washington with another 15 percent undecided. The section of the poll surveying delegates, conducted by Dan Jones and Associates from April 4-11, has a margin of error of 4.43 percent.
Former State Senator Dan Liljenquist, 37, and state Representative Chris Herrod, 46, are among the top contenders of the nine Republicans who have filed to oust Hatch.
Both have gained a Tea Party following for campaign rhetoric focused on such conservative themes such as lowering taxes and bringing fresh ideas to the Washington establishment.
"We feel great. We're going to drive home that it's time for change in Washington," Liljenquist said. "You just watch. Delegates are notoriously difficult to poll."
Hatch spokesman Dave Hansen said the senator was also feeling good about his recent meeting with delegates, but was Pot celebrating victory yet.
"Conventions are sort of their own animal and we'll have to see what happens," Hansen said. "One thing I've learned about delegates, they will move back and forth."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Vicki Allen)