Yet a far worse sign for Lugar, who turned 80 this week, was that nobody at the Rotary Club luncheon where he was speaking asked him about the story — or about the controversy over whether he has a legal address in Indiana, where he last owned a home in 1977.
Instead, the Q&A that followed his remarks was about the geopolitics of food security and his early days running his family’s black walnut farm. It was not just polite, but too polite, especially this close to the May 8 primary.
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Sure, this was Rotary, not “Hardball.” But even here, tougher questions would have suggested that voters were still deciding between the icon and his challenger, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a tea party favorite.
After 35 years in office, the congenitally centrist Lugar — who opposed the Affordable Care Act and supports the Keystone pipeline but doesn’t pound on President Obama — is polling just ahead of Mourdock among Republicans, at 42 percent to 35 percent. But that difference is within the margin of error, and the race is considered a tossup.
Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a gentleman of the old school, referring to the Affordable Care Act as “so-called Obamacare” in campaign speeches and even correctly identifying Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) as a member of the Democratic, rather than “Democrat,” Party. At a time when Republicans routinely insist on denying Democrats that courtesy, hearing the proper usage from a Republican’s lips is a reminder of how unusual it has become.
Yet if the question is whether Lugar is too mild for this highly polarized moment, his answer has not been to reinvent himself. Instead, his pitch about making the world safer by helping African farmers get better yields is a double shot of decaf, resolutely out of sync with the anger of the times.
The ad war here is well funded but within bounds, with Lugar accused of being open to raising the gas tax at one point, which is true, and Mourdock of counting on outside money, also true.
The race is, however, unpredictable, as a result of that outside money, from groups including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, both of which are supporting Mourdock. The governorship and Senate seats in Indiana, in the middle of the country and the middle of the political spectrum, tend to swing back and forth between the parties, and a Mourdock victory could open a path for moderate Democrat Joe Donnelly, a congressman from South Bend who narrowly won reelection in his bellwether district two years ago.
Mourdock, the primary challenger who threatens to end Lugar’s long career, is an introverted 60-year-old geologist who hates parties and loves riding motorcycles and running marathons. He is a bomb-thrower only by Hoosier standards.