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If GOP's Sen. Dick Lugar loses, are Dems prepared to pounce?

If six-term Sen. Dick Lugar loses in Tuesday's GOP primary in Indiana, Democrats see much-improved chances of picking up that US Senate seat in November. But it would not be a shoo-in. 

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Pummeling Lugar with negative ads on those themes is working, recent polls show. Lugar trailed Mourdock by 10 percentage points, according to a Howey/DePauw poll released May 1. 

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Lugar complains of being outspent by the "super political-action committees" that back Mourdock’s campaign and only recently launched his own negative ads criticizing his opponent’s record. 

Donnelly, sensing GOP vulnerability, has turned his attention to Mourdock in recent days. In a speech last week in Indianapolis, Donnelly reserved most of his remarks for an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2009 to stop the federal government’s bailout package for automaker Chrysler.

“It was forced by Richard Mourdock, who wouldn’t stand up for Hoosier workers,” Donnelly said. Mourdock’s partisanship can be blamed for taking his state “to the brink of bankruptcy,” he added. Lugar's name never came up.

Donnelly’s congressional district includes South Bend and Michigan City, which lean Democratic (though Indiana Democrats are more conservative than Democrats as a whole). Donnelly, if he wins the Democratic nomination, is likely to pound the theme that Mourdock's brand of conservatism is too harsh for Indiana, says Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center on Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. That may play well in the Rust Belt section of northwest Indiana, which benefited from the auto bailout, and with independents and moderate Republicans. 

Democrats “would much rather face Richard Mourdock because he painted himself as very conservative, and they are going to do nothing to dispel that,” says Mr. Downs.

Winning his party’s nomination Tuesday would force Mourdock to consider scaling back the tea party messaging of his campaign.

“If Murdock is able to bring the [Republican] Party back together and is able to moderate his position to some degree to bring in some less strident Republicans back to the polls, he could end up winning,” Downs says.

Outside a poll Tuesday in Indianapolis, Mourdock said he felt “the race has national implications regarding the direction of the Republican Party,” according to a video from the Indianapolis Star.

“There are places in the country," he said, "where there are tea party activists who are thinking, ‘If it can happen in Indiana, it can happen here.’ ” 

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