Utah's Hatch, a voice of New Right, faces stiff battle for reelection

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Across the United States this fall, the trumpet calls of the New Right on social issues - abortion, school prayer, tuition tax credits - so audible in 1980, are strangely muted or ignored.

The economy, so dominant in 1982 politics, wipes out any rival for the public's attention.

Only 12 percent of Americans say social issues are most important for deciding their vote for Congress this November, compared with 11 percent who rate defense-foreign policy issues highest and an overwhelming 72 percent most concerned about economic issues, according to a recent survey by Penn and Schoen Associates for the Garth Analysis, a political strategy publication.

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Even here in Utah, where Sen. Orrin Hatch, a leader of the New Right forces, faces a stiff challenge from Democrat Ted Wilson, Salt Lake City's mayor, the ''moral issues,'' as they're called here, are pushed into the background.

The Hatch-Wilson contest clearly is being closely watched across the nation. A Hatch defeat would signal to outsiders a swift swinging back of the pendulum that swept several liberal Democratic senators off the political board in 1980.

The reading here is that the pendulum hasn't swung back quickly enough to catch Hatch. He has inched open his lead from seven points earlier this year to 10 points now - though from Wilson's perspective the race is just starting in earnest.

Still, Hatch's lead is slim. And he is vulnerable in a way that portends future trouble for the right in Utah and elsewhere. Hatch is seen by many Utahans as cold and uncaring about the individuals who must endure the moral dilemmas that give rise to the political social issues.

Both Republicans and Democrats here see the situation in much the same way. ''Orrin tends to polarize people,'' says a GOP professional. ''He's perceived as strident, arrogant. . . . Ted is a complete contrast. He's personable . . . charming.''

Wilson, seeing he hasn't gained on Hatch, is now on the attack, risking his image to fire up the campaign.

But the Wilson attack is not on social issues. Both sides insist social issues will not play a major role. Both candidates take similar conservative stands on abortion, school prayer, gun control, and so forth. Wilson ''favors stiff sentences for criminals - a must stance in a state where 89 percent of the public favors the death penalty.''

Labeling an opponent the darling of the New Right does not necessarily hurt him in Utah, a state where 70 percent of the public perceives themselves as conservative.

So Wilson portrays Hatch as playing to an outside audience, having ''a national agenda'' - implying White House ambitions as well as a primary audience outside Utah.

Some of this is ironic. Both camps are receiving a majority of their funds from outside Utah.

Yet Wilson's theme, that he would serve Utah's interests rather than a national or ideologically sectarian viewpoint, is attractive to many Utahans. They continue to reflect some of the enclave outlook that led early Mormon Church settlers to search out a territory of their own, free of outside interference.

''It's important to be on the right side of social issues,'' says Michael Leavitt, Hatch's campaign director. ''It would be very difficult to be elected in this state without being solidly anti-abortion, anti-ERA, anti-school busing, pro-school prayer. But it's also important not to go too far, not to get too dogmatic.''

Some Utah Republicans privately admit concern that the party might have peaked in the state in 1980. Across the board, they hope to hold their own this Nov. 2 in the federal and state legislative races, where they made great strides in 1978 and 1980.

President Reagan remains remarkably popular in Utah. His job approval rating here, at 71 percent, is far above the national average. And 69 percent of Utahans think the economy will be better a year from now.

''I'm not attacking Reagan,'' Wilson told the Monitor. ''I give him a lot of credit for the goals he set in motion. The trouble is, his plan is not working.''

How important are social issues to the Hatch-Wilson race? ''They've become extremely minimal, mainly because of the New Right's failure in Congress this year,'' Wilson says. ''Very seldom do the people bring up the social issues in this state.''

Hatch campaign director Leavitt also minimizes the social issues impact. He attempts to dissociate single-issue groups from the Hatch campaign. ''I have had (New Right) group after group come into my office and offer to help. They've said they've spelled the difference in other races. They didn't make the difference. They overestimate their effectiveness.'' Leavitt has rejected such offers.

Hatch's campaign bills itself as a rerun of Reagan's 1980 venture. ''There's one basic issue in this campaign: whether the people of this state want to give Reagan's new direction time to work, or go back to the spend and spend, promise and promise politics of the past,'' says Leavitt. ''The Democrats don't have an issue. They're trying to make Hatch's personality, or Hatch's style, the issue.''

The Democrats do not entirely disagree. ''If Wilson wins,'' says Michael Graham, Wilson's campaign director, ''that will be a personal repudiation of Orrin Hatch, and nationally a setback for the New Right.'' Some observers here see a link between Hatch's vulnerability - reflected in a high 30 percent disapproval rating - and the limitations of the New Right's social agenda.

The economy has begun to trouble many Utahans. ''Utah has always felt it is insulated from the economic woes of the rest of the country,'' says John Clark, president of Western Survey Research, an independent Salt Lake City opinion research firm. ''It has always done well in recessions the last 10 or 20 years. This time it's different. There are layoffs, serious business failures, in Utah. . . .''

The Hatch-Wilson race is also highlighting the Mormon Church's influence in state politics. ''Seventy percent of the state's population are Mormons,'' Mr. Clark says. ''Fifty percent of the state (70 percent of the Mormom community) are what we call church-going, weekly active Mormons. Hatch has the support of 70 percent of that group. Wilson has 70 percent of the support of every other group.

''For the future of Utah politics, that division has to be examined. Wilson himself is an active, devout Mormon. . . .''

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