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US state bans gay marriage; veteran senator ousted

Steven R. Hurst

America's small-government, low-tax tea party movement showed its muscle among Republican voters, denying another Senate term to Richard Lugar, one of the most prominent figures in U.S. foreign policy for decades.

In North Carolina, voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed an initiative that strengthens the state's ban on gay marriage, a measure that had the strong support of world-renowned evangelist and resident Rev. Billy Graham.

And Mitt Romney, who has had trouble finding favor in the increasingly conservative Republican base, swept presidential primaries in Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia with no major challengers remaining.

The conservative zeal in Tuesday's voting underlined the divisions gripping the United States six months before Americans make a choice between Romney and President Barack Obama, who are in a close race as the economy's slow recovery weighs on Obama's bid for a second term. The partisan atmosphere will play out as voters also cast ballots for all 438 members of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and 33 of 50 senators. Democrats currently hold a narrow majority in the upper chamber.

"We are experiencing deep political divisions in our society right now," Lugar said shortly after losing his chance at a seventh term to Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who had attacked the senator's greatest strengths _ his bipartisanship and middle-of-the-road wisdom on foreign policy. "These divisions have stalemated progress in critical areas."

Lugar, the 80-year-old ranking Republican on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee was responsible, along with former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, for the 1991 passage of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CRT) that provided money to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in states of the former Soviet Union.

Lugar's loss coincides with a general disinterest in foreign policy issues this presidential election year. It removes from the Senate, which is responsible for ratifying international treaties, an influential advocate for a bipartisan foreign policy.

In a statement, Obama praised former Senate colleague Lugar as someone "who was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done."

Within minutes of Lugar's loss, Democrats were already painting Mourdock as too extreme for the state.

The loss highlights the degree to which deal-makers are becoming a rarity on a Capitol Hill. Lugar follows Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican known for bipartisanship, in leaving the Senate at year's end.

Tea party candidates swept Republicans back into the House majority in 2010, but the movement's staying power has been questioned as utter gridlock grips Congress while tea party members refuse to compromise on Democratic-backed legislation.

Elsewhere, voters in North Carolina backed an amendment to their state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, effectively outlawing gay unions.

North Carolina law already bans gay marriage, but the amendment on the state ballot effectively slammed that door. The amendment also goes beyond state law by voiding other types of domestic unions from carrying legal status, which opponents warn could disrupt protection orders for unmarried couples.

In Wisconsin, Democrats overwhelmingly picked Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a rare recall election.

The June 5 recall is one of the most closely watched elections in the U.S. outside of the presidential race. Walker has embodied the Republican rise to power in 2010 and hopes to avoid becoming just the third state governor to be recalled in U.S. history.

The highly charged contests overshadowed Romney's continued progress toward the Republican presidential nomination.

Even Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, was essentially ignoring the primaries. He spent the day campaigning in his home state of Michigan, where he castigated Obama as an "old-school liberal" whose policies would take the country backward. The Obama campaign recently began using the slogan "Forward."

Romney moved closer to the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination at the party's national convention in August. With 28 delegates from West Virginia still undecided, he had 919 delegates, 225 shy of the total needed.

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Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt and Donna Cassata in Washington, Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis and Thomas Beaumont in Valparaiso, Indiana, contributed to this report.

The Associated Press