Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) faces a tough primary challenge. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

On WDRB-TV in Louisville, Kentucky, Lugar said his message was that “the American economy is still strong, that we’re making progress, although it’s still slow, in terms of job creation and that we still have a dollar that is the world currency, and that we’re still selling bonds to everybody all over the world in spite of the S&P downgrade.”

It’s an echo of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) comment — in the fall of 2008, as Lehman Brothers crashed — that the “fundamentals of our economy are strong.” It didn’t do McCain’s presidential candidacy any good.

Like McCain, Lugar has reason to be wary. The veteran senator faces a serious primary challenge from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. While Mourdock’s fundraising has been underwhelming so far, this gaffe could give him a significant boost.

Lugar’s campaign disputes that interpretation, noting that the economy is in a much different place than it was in late 2008. “There is no comparison between the events of 2008 and the full context of Dick Lugar's interview yesterday,” campaign director David Willkie told The Fix.

“Even with the damage done by the Obama Administration, the underlying basis for the American economy is strong, and we Republicans have full faith in our free enterprise system,” Willkie said in a statement. “How we handle the next few months will be critical for our economic future.”

But Lugar is getting hit from both sides.

“Hoosiers have sensed for years that Lugar has been out of touch on a host of issues,” said Christopher Conner, Mourdock’s communications director. “Yesterday's comments demonstrate his lack of understanding about the debt vote, the S&P downgrade and the current state of the economy.”

That sounds almost exactly like the statement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s Shripal Shah: “After 35 years in Washington, Senator Lugar is clearly out of touch with the struggles that so many Hoosiers are facing right now.” (It’s worth noting that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) made a similar comment today, saying “the fundamentals of the economy are sound.)

Democrats are hoping for a bitter primary that the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), can exploit in 2012.

Lugar-fatigue in the state still runs high; polls show him under 50 percent. He lives in McLean, Va, He’s been in the Senate for over three decades. This comment only makes Lugar seem more distant.

First of all, when 14 million Americans are out of work, it’s always dangerous to say that the economy is recovering. Lugar went further than that by calling the economy “strong.”

Secondly, Lugar’s rosy interpretation puts him squarely on the side of President Obama, against the GOP base. Most Republicans pin the fall of the stock market and the S&P downgrade on the president. While the campaign statement does that, Lugar’s initial assessment did not.

Unlike his endangered colleague Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Lugar has not always played nice with the tea party movement. “A lot of conservatives believe you have to kowtow to the Tea Party,” his spokesman told the New York Times in January. “We reject that premise.” In February, Lugar responded to tea party activists who opposed the new START Treaty with a tart “Get real.”

Those comments suggest that Lugar might not care what conservatives think of him: he’s the most senior Republican in the Senate, and he’s going to say what he believes. But that freedom could come at a price.