By THOMAS B. LANGHORNE
Evansville Courier & Press
EVANSVILLE — Pain and dismay melted into a warm embrace when the political supporters who know Richard Mourdock best told him exactly how they still feel about him.
Acknowledging the greetings of friends even as he spoke to a reporter before a Republican dinner Friday, Mourdock said he too is ready to move past his crushing 11th-hour defeat from a self-inflicted wound in last year’s U.S. Senate race.
Mourdock, Indiana’s state treasurer and a Vanderburgh County resident, is a veteran of many local, congressional and statewide campaigns. He has lost some and won some.
“I’ll be honest, this one was very difficult to lose,” he said seconds before U.S. Sen. Dan Coats stepped forward to pump his hand.
Nobody at Friday night’s Vanderburgh County GOP Lincoln Day dinner at The Centre would have been at a loss to guess what Mourdock was talking about.
Most political observers agreed two weeks before the Nov. 6 election that Mourdock was on track to win the Senate race, albeit narrowly and with significant help from other GOP candidates. Republicans were widely expected to steamroll Democrats from top to bottom in Indiana elections.
But Mourdock’s campaign effectively ended in an instant Oct. 23, when he was asked about abortion rights during a live televised debate in New Albany.
His answer amounted to political suicide.
“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen,” he said.
In the furor that followed, Mourdock tried to clarify and explain his remarks. He said he supports abortion rights only when a mother’s life is in danger, but he hadn’t meant that he believes God intends for rapes to happen. He protested that Democrats were willfully distorting his words for political gain.
But the debate sound bite, played over and over again by Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups, was just too jarring.
On Friday, many Republicans cast Mourdock as a good man who paid an extraordinarily high price for a single inelegantly worded remark. Some blamed what they called a hostile news media for making too much of the tempest, a theme pounded by Mourdock’s campaign finance director in a December fundraising solicitation sent to donors in hopes of retiring his campaign debt.
Others noted that Mourdock was saying something, after all, that many other Americans believe: that abortion is taking an innocent life even when that life was conceived under the worst circumstances.
Lon Walters, a GOP activist and past candidate for local office, said he has been Mourdock’s friend for 12 years.
“Everybody makes faux pas,” Walters said. “I think he was somewhat baited, and I think he just got kind of caught up and didn’t answer it the way I would have.”
Sarah Topper, a longtime Warrick County GOP activist, called Mourdock “one of the most respectable statesman I’ve ever known.”
“Democrats absolutely distorted it,” Topper said of the debate incident.
Mourdock is willing to talk about the debate, but there are other things on his mind too.
“I made my statement that night and clarified as many times as I possibly can. I believe God is the author of life and certainly I want life respected,” he said when asked about it,
Mourdock has almost two years left on his term as treasurer, and he has not gone silent. Shortly before the end of the year, he publicly encouraged Indiana families to invest in college savings accounts and collect a state tax credit before the end of the year.
And then there is politics. Mourdock has never denied his love of politics. He said Friday night’s event was his third GOP Lincoln Day dinner of the week, and three more are lined up this week. Now 61, Mourdock declined to rule out another run for political office, noting dryly that he probably would have done just that a few weeks ago. But he has recovered, mentally and physically.
“Physically it’s an exhausting process. But we’re back in the saddle now and getting on a regular diet, regular exercise program, and I feel 61 instead of 81,” he said with a laugh. “There for awhile it was closer to 80, but we’re back to our early 60s.”
Mourdock vowed not to shrink from the scene, no matter what else happens in the future.
“I’m going to find a way to have my voice heard,” he said.