The man who wants to knock off the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate said he was hoping for a Lincoln-Douglas style debate on Wednesday night — the kind that brings sharp issues into critical focus and propels a little-known candidate toward fame.
Instead, he got what one political observer called “a valuable service to insomniacs everywhere.”
The one and only debate before the May 8 primary election between six-term U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and his intraparty challenger, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, was a disappointing grudge match for those who expected more.
Here’s how POLITICO’s David Catanese described the hour-long debate that took place Wednesday in a studio at an Indianapolis public broadcasting station: “This was a dull, mostly academic, zest-less 60 minutes that lacked the fireworks it deserved and was devoid of a clear knockout punch.”
Political pundits had been counting on something to spark the debate: A recent nonpartisan poll showed the 80-year-old Lugar, an elder statesmen of his party in the fight of his political life, had only a slim lead over Mourdock, a tea party favorite.
In a press briefing after the debate, Mourdock said he never expected to land the knockout punch.
He did say he thought the debate clearly illuminated his differences with Lugar, but few thought either man scored a political smackdown. The CNN headline: “Mudslinging Indiana sen. primary sees no mud in Lugar, Mourdock debate.”
The post-debate news stories spoke mostly of the civil debate between two men who each claimed to be a true conservative, eager to roll back entitlement programs and free businesses from what they see as a regulatory yoke of government.
Post-debate, Mourdock lamented the format in which the candidates had two minutes to respond to questions picked from voters and less time to respond to each other’s answers.
Mourdock said he would have preferred the format made famous in the 1858 Illinois U.S. Senate race between challenger Abraham Lincoln and the incumbent, Stephen Douglas.
Mourdock, a history buff and Lincoln fan, was referring to the series of crowd-rousing debates Lincoln and Douglas held around the state of Illinois. The format for those debates: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the other spoke for the next 90 minutes, then the first candidate followed with a 30-minute response.
Those debates made history.
The Mourdock-Lugar debate likely won’t, said John Krull, a veteran political reporter and director of the Pulliam School of Journalism at Franklin College. It was Krull who described the debate as a cure for the sleepless. “A celebration of sheer charisma, it wasn’t,” he wrote.
The debate was carried live on public broadcasting outlets and many commercial stations around the state, as well as the local TV news stations in Indianapolis. Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times sent reporters to cover it.
But Krull said he thinks the audience for it was small. “Neither of them said anything that would have made people call or text their friends and say, ‘You’ve got to watch this.’” Krull said.
So what’s next is the ground game, combined with the airwave wars.
“Now it’s all about getting out the vote,” said Brian Howey, publisher of Howey Politics Indiana and partner in the recent Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground poll that showed Lugar had only a 7-point lead over Mourdock. The Howey/DePauw poll showed Lugar with a 42 percent-to-35 percent lead over Mourdock, with 23 percent of voters undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Early voting for the May 8 primary got under way Monday. As it did, the National Rifle Association and the anti-tax Club for Growth rolled out television and radio ads portraying Lugar as a Washington, D.C., insider and Mourdock as the true conservative.
But Howey said Lugar’s supporters are fighting back. In addition to airing their own ads painting Mourdock as an extremist, they’re embarking on a massive campaign to distribute thousands of Lugar yard signs around the state and to contact by telephone more than 1 million voters.
Those efforts are critical for both sides.
“The race,” said Howey, “is going to be determined by who has the best ground game.”
Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamedia