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Sen. Dick Lugar trails GOP rival in poll. A surge of tea party power?

Ahead of Tuesday's GOP primary in Indiana, incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar lags challenger Richard Mourdock by 10 points, a new poll shows. A Lugar defeat would be a convincing demonstration of tea party power in 2012 election cycle.

By Staff writer / May 4, 2012

After six terms in the US Senate, Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana is facing his first serious opponent in decades in state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Rising Sun, Ind.

Here along the banks of the mighty Ohio River, the earth is sliding, taking roads and backyards with it. It's the kind of erosion that Richard Mourdock understands, as plain as the hill near his southwestern Indiana home that marks the Terminal Moraine, where the ancient glaciers began their retreat.

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The tea party-backed primary challenger to Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana is, after all, not just the state's treasurer and an amateur historian, but also a geologist, who finds allegory in rocks and river bends. To fight the erosion caused by America's expanding debt, "we've got to have the courage of our convictions," Mr. Mourdock told potential donors in Batesville, Ind., recently. "Bipartisanship has taken us to the brink of bankruptcy."

The May 8 Senate primary here in Indiana may well have important, even earth-moving, implications. Foremost, it's a chance for the antitax tea party movement, after it exploded onto the national political scene in 2009 and reinvigorated a moribund Republican Party ahead of the 2010 midterms, to demonstrate that it still has influence.

On Friday, four days before the primary, came this inkling that it might: Mourdock leads Senator Lugar 48 percent to 38 percent in the latest Howey/DePauw University poll, conducted April 30 and May 1. 

In its debut campaign cycle, the tea party movement drove five-term Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania out of the Republican Party, derailed the reelection bid of three-term Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah, and defeated Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell's handpicked candidate for the Senate in Kentucky in favor of tea party activist Rand Paul.

But some tea party activists now worry that their brand of leaderless "small government" is seen by many Americans as simply obstructionist. They also worry that the zeal of national tea party groups, which are flooding Indiana with negative ads to make an example of Lugar, is creating deep splits in the movement.

Defeating Lugar in Indiana, which has more tea party groups than any other Midwestern state, could signal that the movement retains the capacity to lay the groundwork for a radical reformation of national priorities. Mourdock's 10-point lead in the latest poll, despite being outspent by Lugar on the campaign trail, suggests that the tea party may be closer to that goal. Activists were buoyed, too, after they last month forced another target, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, into a primary fight against a tea party-approved opponent.

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