The Magazine

Lugar’s New Foes

From Nixon’s favorite mayor to Obama’s favorite Republican.

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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Delph was recently reelected by a large margin in a Marion County (Indianapolis) district that Obama carried easily. He has promised constituents that he will not get into the Senate race while the legislature is in session, which could be well into April. Meanwhile, Tea Party activists have organized a draft Delph movement.

If both men run, Delph and Mourdock will split the conservative vote and open an avenue for Lugar’s survival. In Washington, there are those who insist the prideful Lugar in the end will call it quits rather than face GOP opposition back home. Even as Daniels was considering a race for president, Lugar released a poll he sponsored that showed he was the state’s most respected political figure, much to the chagrin of the governor’s presidential backers.

Confusing enough? There is even one political pro who believes that popular conservative congressman Mike Pence might be so convinced that Lugar is finished that he will not be able to resist an easy path to the Senate. Most think Pence will run for governor so he can gain executive experience for a future presidential race.

But for the moment it is Mourdock who is in the spotlight, and he is not without appeal. He is as comfortable making the scientific case against man-made global warming as he is noting it was international broadcasting that gave dissident Natan Sharansky the inspiring words of Ronald Reagan that helped him survive Soviet prisons. 

“Richard was Tea Party before the Tea Party,” declares GOP activist Jill Schroeder Vieth, who got her political start as a college student working in Mourdock’s unsuccessful 1992 congressional campaign. He went on to serve two terms on the three-person Vanderburgh County (Evansville) board of commissioners—a rare success for a Republican in Indiana’s third-largest jurisdiction.

Lugar is reported to have a war chest of $2.5 million, and the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman is a revered figure in prestigious foreign policy circles.

But one phone call to the National Rifle Association is enough to confirm the “F” Lugar receives for his NRA voting record, along with the statement: “In his more than 30 years in the Senate, Richard Lugar has been a consistent opponent of gun owners’ rights on every key issue.”

That’s harsh music that will be played in coming months in rural Indiana. 

Ultimately, however, it may be the words of Barack Obama that will give Lugar the most trouble back home. It puzzles political observers that Lugar allowed himself to be placed in this predicament—though it does echo the problems he had 40 years back as mayor of Indianapolis when networks dubbed him Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor.

Over the years the Almanac of American Politics has paid tribute to Lugar, a one-time Rhodes scholar, for his “considerable intellect” and his “powerful voice” in foreign policy. But you also find in the Almanac a recurring theme: Lugar’s career has been marred by political “disappointments.”

The 1994 Almanac explained: 

In 1984, he ran to succeed his friend Howard Baker as Senate majority leader, and finished third behind Bob Dole and Ted Stevens. In 1986, he was elbowed aside in Foreign Relations by [Jesse] Helms, and in August 1988, George Bush picked—instead of Lugar—a junior and less experienced colleague, Dan Quayle, to be his vice president. 

Two years later the Almanac notes that Lugar ran for president, finishing seventh in the GOP primary in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire before quietly dropping out.

It could be that this history made Lugar vulnerable to Obama’s self-serving adoration. Indeed, if Lugar does stay in the 2012 Republican Senate primary, the list of disappointments may get a little longer.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest.

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