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Can He Pull it Off?

Richard Mourdock may be on his way to toppling Dick Lugar.

9:05 AM, May 1, 2012 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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State treasurer Richard Mourdock, a 60-year-old Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, says the stakes in the Indiana primary couldn’t be higher. “This race is for the heart and soul of the Republican party in the United States Senate,” Mourdock tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

Lugar, Mourdock

Dick Lugar, Richard Mourdock

The May 8 election could also turn out to be the final fight of 80-year-old incumbent Dick Lugar’s long career. A six-term senator and former Indianapolis mayor, Lugar is an institution, but conservative forces within the Republican party have long grumbled that he is too moderate and too ensconced in the Washington bubble, where he’s been since entering the Senate nearly 36 years ago. Now, Lugar is in danger of losing the GOP nomination to Mourdock, who is giving Lugar the toughest electoral battle he’s ever faced.

Internal campaign polls have shown Mourdock leading Lugar, despite the senator having better name recognition and a full campaign war chest. Mourdock says it was a televised debate on April 11 between himself and Lugar that made the race truly competitive. 

“My mission going in was to look confident, capable, and conservative,” Mourdock said. “And that’s what I did.” Fundraising went up following the debate, as did Mourdock's standing in his own internal polls. National media outlets, he says, got interested pretty quickly.

That may be because the primary looks more like a proxy war between GOP establishment types (for Lugar) and the conservative movement (for Mourdock). Norm Coleman’s American Action Network and Eric Cantor’s Young Guns Network Fund, for instance, have engaged in the super PAC TV ad war on his behalf. John McCain, his long-time Senate colleague, and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels have cut ads for Lugar, with McCain calling Lugar a “patriot” and a “hero.” Mourdock has his own help from conservatives and the Tea Party. McCain’s 2008 running mate, Sarah Palin, enthusiastically endorsed Mourdock on her Facebook page. The Club for Growth and the National Rifle Association have invested in anti-Lugar ads and mailers across Indiana.

The establishment is starting to show signs of retreat. American Action Network, which spent thousands of dollars on television ads and direct mailing, unceremoniously pulled its ad campaign late last week. (A spokesman told Politico that AAN decided to “let this race play out.”) The Young Guns Network has continued to spend money on the race but has resorted to encouraging Democrats to vote in Indiana’s open primary for Lugar and against Mourdock. A recent Washington Post headline sums up the looming feeling that the momentum is on Mourdock’s side: “Is it too late for Dick Lugar?”

Lugar himself seems to recognize this race is about his political survival, but he remains upbeat.

“I’m not looking at myself as a casualty,” he recently told reporters in the Capitol. “The word survivor’s the correct word. [We’re] quite healthy, and I believe we’re going to win." 

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