Tea party sympathizers continue shelling Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana as they work to defeat him in next week's primary, which is shaping up as the premier chance for the political movement to capture a senior Republican scalp in this year's elections.
The pressure on Mr. Lugar, a six-term incumbent, grew Wednesday when taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota became the latest to endorse his opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. A new poll found the two in a dead heat ahead of Tuesday's contest.
Mr. Lugar has enjoyed decades of popularity in the state, but his across-the-aisle style of legislating has left him vulnerable in a political environment wary of bipartisan deal-making. He is struggling to sell his experience to voters as a benefit even as he defends a long history of votes that are catching up to him.
The latest barb came when Mr. Norquist attacked Mr. Lugar for refusing to sign a no-new-taxes pledge and endorsing Mr. Mourdock.
"This would have been the opportunity for Lugar to acknowledge the mistakes he made in '82 and '90 signing on to massive tax increases," Mr. Norquist said. "He could have said to the people of Indiana, 'I'm never going to fall for that again,' but instead he said, 'I'm willing to be fooled again.' That's a curious position."
Overall, the tea party has been quieter compared with 2010, when activists defeated GOP incumbents or preferred establishment candidates in Utah, Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
This year, Mr. Lugar is the highest-profile target. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, who was in the cross hairs early on, appears to be in strong shape to survive a challenge.
The fewer races have heightened the attention on Indiana, where Mr. Mourdock's campaign picked up speed in the past few weeks as he has pocketed endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Term Limits America.
Meanwhile, the bad news seems to multiply for Mr. Lugar. Club for Growth continues to spend thousands of dollars on ads against him, and the American Action Network recently canceled a series of ads it planned to run on his behalf.
A poll released Wednesday conducted by the pro-Lugar group Lunchpail Republicans showed Mr. Lugar with 44 percent support compared with 42 percent for Mr. Mourdock — the closest margin any poll has shown. Local analysts agree that the race could swing either way, and some are leaning toward predicting Mr. Mourdock as the winner.
"Virtually everybody that I know and trust have called it for him," said Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of several newsletters on Indiana politics and government. "I just have a real tough time intellectually saying that Lugar is going to lose this. My gut says, 'Gosh, you should have made this call awhile ago,' but stranger things have happened in Indiana on election night."
While Mr. Mourdock is struggling to raise his name recognition above 60 percent to 70 percent, he has positioned himself well to the right of Mr. Lugar, pummeling him over his votes to confirm liberal Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and to bail out the auto industry.
"Mr. Lugar's record over the last few years has not been in the conservative camp," Mr. Mourdock told voters in Fort Wayne on Monday night. "He has gotten the support of some very liberal Supreme Court justices; that's been troubling to me. And I don't think he's been nearly aggressive enough in trying to reduce our incredible deficit in our ever-growing national debt."
But Mr. Lugar has at least one trick in his back pocket: the endorsement of the state's popular governor, Mitch Daniels, who appears in ads running across the state praising his experience.
"I'm not for Dick Lugar 'cause of what he's done, but because of what he can do," Mr. Daniels, a Republican, says in one of the ads. "Our nation faces huge dangers, and it will take people with his big-picture vision and broad respect to see us past them."
But the senator also has foundered under the pressure. He let a controversy over whether he qualified to vote in Indiana owing to his Virginia residency spiral out of control, instead of quickly assuring voters that he could vote using the address of a family farm — the eventual deal he worked out with the state election board.
While Mr. Mourdock shows up at events across the state, Mr. Lugar hasn't apologized to voters for spending more time in Washington and overseas than in Indiana.
"You kind of have to rise above things sometimes, and he's not done that," Mr. Feigenbaum said.
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