- Associated Press - Sunday, May 6, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS — For roughly two decades, Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock toiled in the trenches of the state Republican Party, losing more races than he won. But along the way he made a name for himself among GOP loyalists, tirelessly working the fundraising circuit and building a strong network of ground-level support.

Now Mr. Mourdock, a 60-year-old geologist by training, is on the brink of handing the tea party its biggest victory of the 2012 elections: Sen. Richard G. Lugar’s seat.

Mr. Mourdock “is the real deal,” said Mike Fichter, president of Indiana Right to Life, who cut his teeth in politics working on Mr. Mourdock’s first unsuccessful run for Congress in 1988 and has repaid the favor by endorsing him over Mr. Lugar. “He didn’t arrive in 2012 and try to develop a platform that would attract conservative voters to him. He attracts conservative voters to him because he’s a conservative.”

It was unthinkable just month ago that anyone could topple the six-term Mr. Lugar, let alone a little-known state treasurer. But like the marathon runner he is, Mr. Mourdock has steadily chipped away at Mr. Lugar’s base with a successful campaign questioning the senator’s residency and conservative credentials.

With the primary election on Tuesday, Mr. Mourdock appears to have evened the odds in what began as a David vs. Goliath battle. Recent polls show momentum on Mr. Mourdock’s side, and that has emboldened conservatives eager to shake up Washington.

“If we win here, we are going to win the election,” said Josh Eboch, campaign manager for the tea party umbrella group FreedomWorks, as he rallied Mr. Mourdock supporters in a heavily Republican Indianapolis suburb on a recent Saturday afternoon.

At first blush, Mr. Mourdock seems an unlikely dragon slayer. The two-term state treasurer lacks the dashing presence of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and the fiery rhetoric of tea party standard-bearers like Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois and Rep. Allen West of Florida. Before his 2006 election as state treasurer, an office that carries little name recognition, Mr. Mourdock’s only political experience consisted of two terms as a commissioner in the southern Indiana county that includes Evansville.

But the anti-incumbent sentiment that fueled the tea party’s growth in 2010 and an unexpected court fight that thrust Mr. Mourdock into the national spotlight may change all that in Indiana, home to one of the nation’s most organized tea party movements.

Mr. Mourdock, a former coal-mining executive who enjoys tinkering with motorcycles and building race cars, has built a reputation as a GOP loyalist since that first run for Congress in 1988. He’s a regular at party events ranging from large annual Lincoln Day dinners that are the staple of fundraising to picnics with as few as two people. He’s so accustomed to delivering speeches about Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan that he seldom needs notes.

“The first time we had him speak there was very, very little applause, and it was a speech about Abraham Lincoln, and we wondered: ‘Did it bomb or what?’ And then we realized that everyone was so reverent and spellbound that when it was over, it took awhile for it to sink in,” said Morgan County Republican Party Chairman Marty Weaver.