Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGOP Senate primary heats up in Montana Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Senate panel advances Trump's CIA nominee MORE (R) said Friday that he wouldn't endorse fellow Utah Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchRepublicans think Trump is losing trade war McConnell tells senators he might scrap August recess Longtime tax aide leaving Senate Finance Committee MORE (R) for reelection in the 2012 GOP Senate primary.

Lee, a freshman senator allied with the conservative Tea Party movement, said he would stay neutral in the Republican primary, paving the way for a conservative challenger to Hatch.

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"It's not my intention to support any candidate until the democratic process has had a chance to play itself out in Utah," Lee said on MSNBC.

Lee's decision not to endorse Hatch speaks volumes about the political danger Hatch faces in 2012. The veteran GOP senator is expected to face a primary challenge from his right, and there's active precedent that a challenger could succeed; Lee, after all, succeeded in wresting the Republican nomination from veteran Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) in a primary race last year.

Hatch has been working to promote his conservative credentials, and has been conducting outreach to Tea Party groups. He participated earlier this week, for instance, in an online town hall organized by the Tea Party Express, one of the largest groups in the movement.

Lee said he wishes Hatch well, but was pointed in refusing to say he would endorse his colleague for reelection.

"That's not up to me, that's up to the voters of Utah once we get into 2012," Lee explained, adding that he could "absolutely endorse" Hatch — if he emerges victorious from a Republican primary.

That primary process could be rigged to benefit conservatives, though. Lee beat Bennett last year due to domination by conservatives at a state party convention. Any challenger to Hatch — Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzChaplain controversy shifts spotlight to rising GOP star Ingraham’s ratings spike a wake-up for advertisers Boehner to campaign for House GOP candidates MORE (R-Utah) is said to be considered running — might take advantage of that process, too.