- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Smashmouth politics, the norm nearly everywhere else, has overtaken “Indiana nice” on the banks of the old Wabash. A lion of the Senate — as Senate lions are now measured — is likely to fall today.

All the polls say so. One of them shows Richard Mourdock, challenging Richard Lugar, seeking his seventh six-year term, up by 10 points. Mr. Lugar once seemed invincible. He was elected without significant opposition in 2006 because Democrats figured there was no point even in fielding a candidate.

“That’s his weakness, and probably fatal,” says a Republican pol who claims to have no horse in this race. “Lugar is the last man in Indiana who still believes he’s invincible.”

Richard Mourdock, practicing the “Indiana nice” that Hoosiers left and right are so proud of, never loses an opportunity to embellish his conservative tea party credentials, but he takes pains to say that he regards Mr. Lugar as a “great public servant,” an “icon of Republican politics.” He told a party rally not long ago in Indianapolis that “I have voted for him many times in the past.”

But hope and change are not just Democratic yearnings, and Mr. Mourdock’s television commercials, which have saturated the soft air of an Indiana spring, are considerably harsher than Indiana nice. “When Dick Lugar moved to Washington he left behind more than his house,” a Mourdock surrogate intones. “He left behind his conservative Indiana values. Lugar’s been in Washington for 36 years. That’s too long. Time for a change.”

The Lugar rhetoric is not so Indiana nice, either. In recent days, the senator’s rhetoric turned alternately bellicose and pleading, accusing Mr. Mourdock, 61, the state treasurer since 2007, of being “unqualified,” a “neophyte” with no experience beyond Indiana, who will be overwhelmed by big-league politics. But over the weekend the senator, 80, turned to cries more for mercy than help. The onetime “icon” called a news conference to present a list of constituencies - “farmers, labor unions, veterans, Jews, women and other minorities” - who owe him their votes because of what he has done for them over his six terms.

“I believe that right now, if a majority of Hoosiers were to vote in an election, that is, all Hoosiers regardless of party … I would win. I have a majority support in our state. … I’m not asking anybody to cross over.”

But that’s exactly what he’s asking Democrats to do, to vote in the Republican primary, perfectly legal in Indiana. Others in the Republican establishment in Washington, including Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, have done so, too. The senator’s most fervent support, in fact, comes from the Washington engineers on the federal gravy train, and may be more hindrance than help this year. It’s probably not nice to say so, but a lot of Indiana voters - maybe most - think Washington stinks.

The loyalty Mr. Lugar is pleading for in extremis is loyalty he has not always shown to other Republicans. The very day of the final Republican debate four years ago he praised Barack Obama’s “foreign policy approach” in a speech at the National Defense University, and warned against John McCain’s “isolationist reactive policies.” Mr. McCain does not hold a grudge, apparently, and has endorsed his old tormentor’s re-election effort. The Senate club commands the fiercest loyalties.

Mr. Mourdock has strong Washington allies as well, who have pumped millions of dollars into the effort to defeat Mr. Lugar. The senator has been cited, in mailers and television commercials, for his support of amnesty for illegal immigrants, support of the bailout of Wall Street and General Motors and Chrysler, for confirming Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, and for declining to join 33 Republican senators in supporting a Florida lawsuit attacking the constitutionality of Obamacare, to which Indiana is also a party.

Mr. Lugar might well pull an upset, though the momentum is clearly with Richard Mourdock. Some early Lugar endorsers are having second thoughts on the eve of the primary. Mitch Daniels, the popular Republican governor who was once the senator’s chief of staff, is most prominent among them. If Mr. Mourdock wins, he says, the governor will cheerfully support him.

“He’s a thoroughly credible person - you know, a friend and ally of mine,” he says. “I was in an awkward position, to say the least, between two people I know and like and admire.” The early endorsement of the senator just seemed like the genteel, delicate “Indiana nice” thing to do.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.