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May 6, 2012

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Is Lugar’s race one too many?

INDIANAPOLIS —  You think may think 80 is old, but U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who hit that mile marker in April, has this message for people who think he needs to retire: I can still run.

Want evidence? Go to capitalchallenge.com, the website for Capital Challenge, a three-mile team race that takes place every year in the nation’s capitol. There you’ll see the U.S. Senate’s most senior senator crossing the finish line. In the photo, he’s 79, running his 30th Capital Challenge race.

On Friday morning at a press conference with Indiana reporters, Lugar said he’s headed back for his 31st race next Sunday. “I’m the only member of Congress to run in all the races,” he said.

That was right before he told reporters: “I can’t correct the fact that I’m 80.”

But the six-term Republican incumbent must be feeling his age. Just hours before he meeting with reporters, news broke that an independent poll taken a week before primary election day had him 10 points down. What a turnaround from March, when the same pollsters found leading in the intra-party contest with State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite.

The possibility that Lugar may run his last Capital Challenge as a sitting senator next weekend seemed to be unnerving to him and his staff. They can no longer count on Republicans to put Lugar back in office, so he asked for Democrats and Independents to consider picking up a GOP ballot on Tuesday’s open primary to vote for him.

Lugar wanted the media to deliver this message: “Every person in Indiana who wants me to continue, every person wherever they might be at this point, I encourage them to come out,” Lugar said. “Come out immediately, as fast as you can.”

The poll that prompted that plea was the Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll. Conducted by a bipartisan team of pollsters, it’s considered reliable by both sides.

Digging deeper into the poll results offers some hint at why this race has been so confounding for the Lugar campaign. It shows, for example, that 60 percent of Republican primary voters polled said they want a senator “to focus first on trying to solve many of our country’s problems, even if that means working with elected officials across the aisle to do it.”

The poll also found that less than one-third of those voters said they want a senator to focus first on standing up for conservative principles.

Yet it’s the Mourdock campaign that has championed their candidate as the stand-up guy for conservatism; a man who sees reaching across the aisle as a compromise of virtue.

What may be telling is this: The pollsters found that one of the biggest issues Lugar faces isn’t the “liberal transgressions” of which he’s been accused by Mourdock supporters, but his longevity.

So in other words, he may lose because he’s run one race too many.

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI Statehouse Bureau. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup

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