By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Veteran Senator Orrin Hatch cruised to an easy victory on Tuesday against a Tea Party movement-backed challenger who managed to eke out enough votes at Utah's Republican nominating convention to force a primary run-off.
Hatch, a 78-year-old stalwart of the Republican Party who was first elected to the Senate in 1976, commanded a decisive lead over his rival, Dan Liljenquist, 37, a former state senator who billed himself as a face for change and more conservative leadership.
With 65 percent of precincts reporting, Hatch drew 66 percent of the vote, compared with 33 percent for Liljenquist, as the Salt Lake Tribune and other media outlets, including CNN and National Public Radio, called the race in Hatch's favor.
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.
"We feel very confident that the campaign has been run and our message has gotten out to the voters in the state and they are supportive of the senator," Hatch spokesman Dave Hansen said earlier in the day, citing polls that showed the incumbent leading handily going into Tuesday's election.
With his apparent win, Hatch avoids the fate of his former Senate colleague, Utah's Bob Bennett, whose 2010 run for a fourth term foundered over conservative anger at the healthcare overhaul pushed by President Barack Obama, leading to a revolt against the Republican establishment by state Tea Party activists and the election of Mike Lee.
Hatch came out with the most votes over nine challengers at the April convention but narrowly fell short of the 60 percent needed to win the party nomination outright and avoid the primary.
Hatch, who has vowed this will be his last race for the Senate, said his seniority and likely chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, made returning him to Washington a priority for Utah voters.
"He's been in for a long time, but this could be his last term. It's a good thing for him to be re-elected again because of the whole budget," Jill Syme said on Tuesday as she was entering the Taylorsville Public Library to vote with two children in tow.
But at another polling station in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, 73-year-old retired police officer Monte Luker, a lifetime Republican who has always voted for Hatch, cast his vote for Liljenquist.
"What I know is that Orrin Hatch, as nice of a guy as he is, has had 30 years to effect change and that hasn't happened," Luker said. "I think he's a member of the elite establishment that has moved our country almost into bankruptcy."
Liljenquist said in a recent radio debate that he was running against Hatch because of the senator's seniority, not in spite of it. He has said more conservative leadership is needed, adding his youth and commitment to change in Washington make him the logical choice over the six-term senator.
He and state Representative Chris Herrod, who was among the field of early challengers, gained a Tea Party following for campaigning to cut taxes and reduce the size of government.
Roughly 76,000 voters cast early or absentee ballots in the primary election, according to state election officials. Tuesday's primary winner goes on to face conservative Democrat Scott Howell, also a former state senator, in November. But Howell is considered an underdog.
(Additional reporting by James Nelson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Eric Walsh and David Brunnstrom)