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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.

Instead, he delivered four posterboards — one of which included the stunning revelation that Mourdock supported the fairness doctrine in a Congressional campaign 20 years ago. These kinds of wordy visual aids work on the Senate floor for the C-SPAN cameras but rarely on the campaign trail.

More damaging, there’s not a coherent message between accusations about Mourdock’s personal finances, use of public funds, his lack of a position on employers who hire illegal immigrants or the comprehensive test ban treaty.

The dozen local reporters who showed up for the presser can hardly make out the news or the message. Voters, meanwhile, are even more confused.

You Can’t Go Home (Without an Address)

If Lugar’s campaign provides one lesson for his Congressional colleagues, it should be this: Always keep a current address at home.

The major turning point in Lugar’s race was the fight over his Indiana residency. The bad headlines started in February 2011, when the Senator’s spokesman confirmed Lugar stays in an Indianapolis hotel when visiting the state.

But the issue reached a crescendo in the months leading up the primary. On March 15, a Marion County Election Board ruled the Senator ineligible to vote at his outdated address. After that, the Lugar campaign went past the point of recovery.

Local newspapers pounded Lugar in the headlines over the residency issue. In an effort to change the subject, the Senator’s team went negative.

Lugar’s team didn’t have a choice to fight back, but it backfired on him. Hoosiers have come to know Lugar as the Boy Scout Mayor since he won his first election as the top executive in Indianapolis in 1967.

“It shocks Hoosiers the type of campaign the senior Senator is launching, and it’s turning them off, repulsing them,” said C.O. Montgomery, a Mourdock volunteer organizer in Hancock County. “Run more of those ads, guys, because it’s working.”

Lugar successfully registered to vote at his family’s farm a couple of weeks later (the address suffices for voter registration, although Lugar doesn’t stay there). But the damage was done. The issue reinforced what so many Hoosier Republicans already suspected about Lugar: He doesn’t come home anymore.

“Back in 1970, my first date with my first wife was at the Orange County Lincoln Day dinner,” said Morgan County Republican Party Chairman Martin Weaver, an ardent Mourdock supporter. “And that’s the last time I saw Lugar at a Lincoln Day Dinner. “

‘An Opponent, Not an Enemy’

If 90 percent of success is showing up, then Mourdock will win Tuesday.

He’s been shaking hands and pouring coffee at Lincoln Day dinners like the one on Thursday night at Monrovia Christian Church, southwest of Indianapolis, for a decade. During the live fundraising auction, Mourdock parades through the round tables like Vanna White, hawking a painting of the state capital by GOP Rep. Mike Pence’s wife.

He’s done this before, and the toothy-grinned former geologist has this shtick down.

“I respect him a great deal. I voted for him many times myself,” Mourdock extolled to the crowd’s awkward silence inside the church social hall. “He’s an opponent, not an enemy.”

Even Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), Lugar’s most prominent public backer, acknowledged Mourdock’s long career in Indiana politics would make him a good Senator.

“Richard Mourdock is a credible guy,” Daniels told Roll Call. “He’s not somebody who appeared from nowhere on the fringe of politics. He’s a two-term official elected statewide.”

Mourdock had help with his once-fledgeling campaign. Most notably, outside groups have spent more than $2.3 million on the effort to defeat Lugar. After Mourdock received the Club for Growth’s endorsement in February, the money spigot turned on.

“Hard work pays off — it really does,” Mourdock said after the fried chicken dinner. “Mr. Lugar’s campaign has made some tactical errors as they’ve approached things, and that’s just the nature of campaigning: One side does it the right way, and one side does it the wrong way, and in the end, it all gets added up, somebody wins, somebody loses.”

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