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Orrin Hatch: Stand-By Man

Should Texas Gov. George W. Bush stumble as front-runner for the GOP nomination, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch wants to be right there to sprint to the finish line.

The Utah Republican declared his intentions in Salt Lake City during a meeting of supporters last Friday, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"He said he's running," the official said Tuesday, adding that Hatch conceded Bush's status in the race and said his hope was to be an alternative, should the Texas governor lose ground.

Hatch's aides said they expect an announcement from the senator in the next week. Many of his colleagues considered a Hatch candidacy a foregone conclusion.

The developments came as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., lamented the prospect of having three Republican senators seeking their party's presidential nomination.

"I'd like for them to, frankly, to stay here and work on the Senate legislation rather than be out running around the country campaigning," Lott told reporters Tuesday.

Two other Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and Bob Smith of New Hampshire, already are among the crowded field seeking their party's presidential nomination.

Lott said he wished Hatch well.

Noting that Hatch "is a key player here on a number of bills," Lott predicted that the Utah senator will have a tough job keeping up with his legislative responsibilities while campaigning.

"But that's his call and that's their call and they've got to make that decision and I'm not being critical of any of them," Lott said.

Hatch received more supportive words from his fellow Republican Utah senator, Bob Bennett, who said, "I find him to be tremendously attractive."

Bennett was blocked from reaching his Capitol hideaway office by the mob of journalists and tourists waiting to see Bush enter the nearby Senate Foreign Relations Committee room to meet with senators.

"I guess everyone wants to see the man they think is going to be the next president of the United States," Bennett said. "I'm not saying there's not going to be a coronation, I'm just not lined up for it yet."

To that end, Bennett will be "assisting" Elizabeth Dole in her presidential exploratory committee. As for Bush, he said: "I would have no problem at all with him as the nominee and the next president."

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