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Lugar, Mourdock prepare for lone debate in Senate race

April 8, 2012

Until now, Indiana's Senate Republican primary race between longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock has been dominated by television ads, millions of campaign phone calls and foment among Indiana's strong base of conservative voters: All of them proxies for the showdown between the elder statesman and one of the party's hardest-working members.

The two men are scheduled to field questions from Hoosiers, side by side, at 7 p.m. Wednesday when the Indiana Debate Commission hosts Lugar and Mourdock's only debate before the May 8 Indiana Republican primary.

The hour-long debate will be broadcast from the studios of WFYI, a PBS affiliate in downtown Indianapolis. Citizens can provide possible questions by submitting them here.

The last week leading up to the debate has given voters a taste of the nasty, heavily funded campaign. Lugar took beatings on his support for gas taxes and oil price controls, and fired back by saying those attacks heavily distort the facts. Lugar supporters call Mourdock a pawn of Democrats because of their coordinated attacks against Lugar.

Those are the internally-polled, highly-vetted storylines dozens of political staffers are pushing as the best way to knock out their opponent.

But the debate commission is taking questions from Hoosiers via email and Facebook. And a quick perusal of the commission's Facebook page shows a pretty refreshing break from the monotony of campaign talking points: One person asks in one post whether each candidate would continue to support billions in federal subsidies for Indiana farmers. Another asks how the two would deal with the national healthcare problem if they oppose "Obamacare."

Of course those questions are among some of the same ones the candidates have faced from voters around the state.

Yet if there's been an argument about alternatives for fixing national healthcare, ways to balance domestic energy production with limited resources and limited federal dollars and just about anything else a member of the U.S. Senate would debate during the next six-year term, it hasn't made its way into the various 30-second spots that have flooded Indiana television stations.

National pollsters Fred Yang and Christine Matthews said that while the debate will likely expose many voters for the first time to Mourdock, there is little it will do to change an already tight race.

The results of their polling of likely Republican voters, published by DePauw University and Howey Politics Indiana last week, showed a close race between the two men vying to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly in November.

Yang pointed to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the rare candidate who has benefitted broadly with voters based on debate performances. Of course, Gingrich appeared in close to two dozen nationally televised debates, while Mourdock and Lugar get one crack in Indiana before the May 8 primary.

"I think it will be important because Mourdock isn't known," said Matthews, a veteran Republican pollster. "And if people are curious about who he is, and motivated and it is somewhat easily accessible for them to watch this, I think that will be a good opportunity for them and could very well move some numbers in this particular race."

Yang said that, short of a gaffe like President Gerald Ford's assertion in a 1976 debate that the Soviet Union held no influence over Eastern Europe, debates tend to do little to change candidate's chances.

"I think short of that, unless, there's a big gaffe, it's hard for a debate to fundamentally effect a poll," said Yang, a longtime pollster for Indiana Democrats.

Both agreed, however, that Mourdock has more to show in this debate than Lugar.

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