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No Sparks Fly in Lugar-Mourdock Debate

No Sparks Fly in Lugar-Mourdock Debate

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - April 12, 2012


It has been several years since either Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar or state Treasurer Richard Mourdock participated in a campaign debate, but both handled Wednesday night's face-off smoothly, the first and only one before the Hoosier State's Republican primary contest next month.

This intra-party squabble between a longtime incumbent and a conservative insurgent has been heating up, and both the candidates and outside groups have taken to the airwaves with blistering attack ads. But the debate in Indianapolis was mild-mannered, and the contested issues at the center of those ads did not surface during the hour-long encounter -- though Mourdock used his closing argument to take a shot at Lugar for not living in the state.

Instead, both contenders used the opportunity to define themselves on their own terms. Mourdock introduced himself to voters as an articulate businessman -- but a reluctant politician -- focused on cutting the deficit and creating jobs. Lugar characterized himself as a loyal and knowledgeable public servant.

But in explaining his strengths and accomplishments over a nearly 36-year career in the Senate (he mentioned the length of his tenure a couple of times), Lugar revealed his vulnerability in an election season that hasn’t been all that friendly to incumbents. Analysts watching this race portray it as a referendum on the incumbent and a call for a fresh GOP face in the upper chamber.

But Lugar benefited from the types of questions posed during the debate. Polls and on-the-ground reports show Hoosiers are most concerned about jobs and the economy, but a majority of the questions, submitted by voters to the Indiana Debate Commission, focused more on foreign policy and national security -- Lugar’s specialty as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He frequently touted his nuclear nonproliferation program, co-authored 20 years ago with then-Sen. Sam Nunn (a Democrat), while Mourdock admitted that, as a state office holder, he did not have the same “access” to that kind of information. Mourdock called the withdrawal of troops from Iraq an “inexcusable foreign policy failure,” arguing “we cannot turn tail and run.”

The challenger was strong and focused when it came to economic issues. He criticized the Obama administration on several occasions. Federal regulations, including one mandating the use of corn-based ethanol, he said, have led to high gas prices, he said. He also advocated for more domestic oil drilling. Lugar countered that the ethanol requirement helps state corn farmers, and said that gas prices are decreasing thanks to a relative calming of Middle East tensions.

Mourdock stressed the need to “roll back the size of government” and criticized the current Congress for not fighting hard enough for small businesses and job creators. “I don’t hear nearly enough of that except in campaign season,” he said. “I’m more frustrated with Republicans than I am with Democrats.” Lugar answered that “those of us who are now serving each day” are trying to make progress. He touted his support for Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan and said that the Bush-era tax cuts should remain in place.

Mourdock has positioned himself as the more conservative candidate in the race, and groups such as Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the National Riffle Association have backed him, providing organizational help and advertising. Lugar has long been considered a moderate, and hasn’t moved to the right in this primary, as have some of his colleagues also facing re-election. When asked what it means to be a conservative, Mourdock cited his belief in smaller government and opposition to the idea that businesses should depend on it. “Crony capitalism is the opposite of conservatism,” he said. Lugar cited his lifetime of accomplishments to explain his conservative values: serving in the U.S. Navy, managing a food manufacturing businesses where he learned how to “create new jobs and create new products,” and managing his family farm in Marion County for more than 50 years.

When asked how to best provide reproductive health services, Lugar said government should not play any role. Mourdock agreed.

The debate concluded with a simple question on how each would best serve Hoosier interests. Lugar gave a longwinded answer, saying the issues of our day provide “exciting opportunities” for political leaders, and he expressed gratitude for being able to serve.

Mourdock asked the moderator whether it was, in fact, the final question of the night. Told yes, he pivoted to what sounded like a rehearsed speech.

“The first thing I’m going to do to represent Hoosiers is to be in touch with them. I am proud to call this state home,” he said, an indirect a shot at his opponent, who sold his home in Indiana in 1977 and has lived in the Washington, D.C., suburbs ever since. (Lugar successfully challenged the Marion County Election Board that had ruled him ineligible to vote in the state.) “I got into this race not because I had a lifelong ambition of being a United State Senator, because I didn’t. And I still don’t,” ” said Mourdock, who has twice run for Congress and lost. “This is not the start of my career. . . . We all have great respect for Sen. Lugar . . . [but] my friends, I do believe it’s time.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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