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Tactical Errors, Lack of Message Plague Dick Lugar

Michael Conroy/Associated Press
A yard sign calling for voters to "retire" Sen. Dick Lugar stands along the road in New Palestine, Ind. Lugar, running for his seventh term, is facing one of his toughest election battles in the Republican primary against state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

INDIANAPOLIS — In the age of modern campaigns, Sen. Dick Lugar’s political obituary could have been avoided.

A year ago, the Republican lawmaker was in a position to run a well-funded campaign to take down state Treasurer Richard Mourdock’s challenge on his right flank. Now, one week before the May 8 primary, the Hoosier legend faces a miserable cap to his 36-year career.

It didn’t have to be this way for Lugar. The six-term Senator failed to run a nimble campaign operation and to anticipate his political vulnerabilities — let alone resolve them.

He made specific strategic errors, from battling accusations about his out-of-state residency to struggling to define his opponent and executing a clear re-election message.

In the meantime, Lugar lost the high ground — his congenial reputation as a statesman — by running millions of dollars in attack ads for the first time in his career.

“I think they floundered for an argument — or they never thought they’d need to make one,” said an Indiana operative and Lugar supporter. It’s “petty, negative stuff that’s very common in our politics, but he should be above that. Tactically, I think it’s inconsistent with his brand.”

After the ballots are counted, the primary results will likely show a Mourdock victory. But, to be sure, Lugar will have lost the race.

Leave a Message

A corkboard shrine of Lugar’s op-eds and photos with local elected officials decorates the wall at his Indianapolis headquarters in the trendy Broad Ripple neighborhood. The collage is anchored by a shot of the 80-year-old crossing the finish line at the annual ACLI Capital Challenge three-mile race, while scores of deep-blue yard signs line the walls.

Lugar’s presence is everywhere, but he is not. Thirteen days before the primary, Lugar is voting in Washington, D.C., before he returns Friday for the race’s final stretch.

It’s not uncommon for Members to miss votes before a primary — especially if there’s a good chance they will lose. But Lugar’s staff balked at the suggestion that he could tarnish his 98 percent lifetime attendance record in the Senate.

Lugar wouldn’t skip votes when he was running for president in 1996, spokesman Andy Fisher said, even while his fellow national contenders such as then-Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) frequently left Capitol Hill for the trail.

A few hours earlier, Lugar’s campaign held a press conference in the Marott, a hotel that was turned into luxury apartment building. Fisher promised reporters a groundbreaking attack against Mourdock.

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