- - Thursday, May 3, 2012

Indiana Republicans will head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether Richard G. Lugar, a fixture in Washington for nearly 40 years, will get the chance to bid for a seventh six-year Senate term in November.

Mr. Lugar hit the big time when, a few years after being elected mayor of Indianapolis in 1967, then-President Richard Nixon dubbed him his “favorite” mayor and his friends uncorked a massive demonstration in his honor at the 1972 GOP convention in Miami. It was their hope - and his - that with Nixon cheering him on, he would take Washington by storm and eventually make it to the White House himself. Watergate and Nixon’s demise didn’t help, but Mr. Lugar made it to the Senate on his own in 1976 and has been a fixture there ever since.

At the same time, he emerged as something of an icon in Indiana but eventually morphed into a Washington establishmentarian who just happened to come from Indiana. He made himself into something of an expert on foreign policy, fought with then-Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms in the 1990s and even managed a run for his party’s presidential nomination in 1996.

He saw himself as a quintessential moderate who seemed during that campaign to be running more against the National Rifle Association than against the other contenders, but he prided himself on being something of a happy warrior who eschewed the “negative” campaigning that has become a part of American politics. The image seemed to work for him, as he was never seriously challenged back home and won re-election six years ago with 87 percent of the vote.

Mr. Lugar seemed to see himself as above party. By 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was describing Mr. Lugar as the Senate colleague he most admired. The man who had been Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor had become Mr. Obama’s favorite senator. Mr. Obama carried Indiana that year as Mr. Lugar seemed more than once almost to endorse the man. When it was over, more than a few Republicans were convinced that Mr. Lugar had to go.

Ridding themselves of a man who seemed to personify the state and repeatedly won landslide support, however, didn’t promise to be easy. They needed a narrative and a horse. Mr. Lugar provided the narrative. He hadn’t spent much time in Indiana in recent years and, as it turned out, hadn’t had a residence in the state since the 1970s. It was as if the senator was defining himself as out of touch with the people who had sent him to Washington back in 1976.

This - and his stands on a number of issues - put him at odds with activists and the Tea Party types, whom he scorned at every opportunity, but it wasn’t until Richard Mourdock, an engineer-turned-politician, stepped forward that Mr. Lugar’s opponents found a horse. Mr. Lugar tried at first to treat Mr. Mourdock as a minor annoyance, a protest candidate who had little chance of attracting money or votes in a contest against a Hoosier icon, but Mr. Mourdock was much more than just a protest candidate.

Mr. Mourdock is a conservative who has served two terms as a county commissioner and, more important, two as Indiana state treasurer. In 2010, he led the ticket, winning re-election with 62 percent of the vote. He has been a fixture for years at Hoosier Lincoln Day dinners and more recently at Tea Party events. He’s a reasonable conservative and considered a serious and responsible politician by the likes of Gov. Mitch Daniels (who has endorsed and cut television ads for Mr. Lugar, his old mentor) and Rep. Mike Pence (who is running to succeed Mr. Daniels and is, therefore, neutral). Within weeks of announcing that he would challenge Mr. Lugar, Mr. Mourdock was endorsed by most of the state’s GOP county chairmen and by national conservative groups that have had enough of Mr. Lugar.

Once he realized he was in trouble, Mr. Lugar set about destroying his own brand. The smiling, avuncular senior senator who had spent years denouncing negative campaigning came on like Darth Vader. He denounces Mr. Mourdock as a nut or, alternatively, as a phony conservative. He dismisses him as a lightweight and hints that he’s a crook as well. It is unseemly, and isn’t working.

As the race enters its final week, the polls suggest the contest is too close to call, but while the whole Republican establishment is working to re-elect the man, anyone who has been around campaigns enough to pick up the smell of death will be betting that the Richard on the November ballot in Indiana will be Mourdock rather than Lugar.

David A. Keene is the former chairman of the American Conservative Union and a member of the board of the ACU, the National Rifle Association, the Constitution Project and the Center for the National Interest.