STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When Indiana holds its primary in May, a Senate race may gain more attention than the presidential contest. Republican Senator Richard Lugar faces a primary challenge for the first time since he won the job in the 1970s. The Tea Party movement is backing that challenge, which is attracting big spending by outside groups and superPACs.
NPR's Tamara Keith has this report.
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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The Chapel at Fort Wayne, Indiana has a high-octane choir and seemingly endless rows of pews, and on Sunday, it proved a friendly stop for 80-year-old Senator Dick Lugar.
SENATOR DICK LUGAR: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Senator Lugar, I was hoping I'd get a chance to say thank you very much for what you've done for us.
KEITH: On the face of it, Lugar should have every advantage in this primary. He has huge name recognition, is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has a massive political war chest: millions more in the bank than his opponent.
But in recent weeks, Lugar has faced a series of embarrassments. First, a local elections board ruled he was ineligible to vote because he sold his Indianapolis home in 1977 and moved to a Washington, D.C. suburb, though the board said he could reregister from the address of a family farm.
LUGAR: And so we have done so. So we're now registered voters, and once again, we will be voting in the election.
KEITH: Then it came out that Lugar's staff may have inappropriately submitted for reimbursement for hotel stays when he was back in the state.
LUGAR: So I wrote a personal check on Friday for the $14,600 to the United States Treasury to remedy this situation.
KEITH: He describes these problems as character attacks, coming from outside groups. And it's not yet clear how they will affect the race. What is clear is that for the first time in decades, Lugar is facing a very serious challenge, and that challenge is coming from the right.
RICHARD MOURDOCK: We've got to have government living within its means. Mr. Lugar's been part of that go-along, get-along group that keeps making government bigger. I want to make it smaller.
KEITH: Sixty-year-old State Treasurer Richard Mourdock knows he's running against an Indiana institution, but he isn't letting that bother him.
MOURDOCK: It hasn't been easy from the get-go to get people ready to think that even we should have another senator. But I'm convinced Republicans are about to say on May 8th, it's time.
KEITH: As he's done virtually every Saturday since October, Mourdock is going door to door, introducing himself to Republican voters.
ROBERT WALTER: You're running against...
MOURDOCK: Mr. Lugar.
WALTER: Lugar, yeah. He's been there too long, hasn't he?
MOURDOCK: I hear that a great deal.
KEITH: A couple of blocks away, Dianne Hensley greets the candidate on her porch.
DIANNE HENSLEY: Even I had to retire. Lugar's been there long enough, so it's time for fresh blood, new ideas.
KEITH: There are reasons for Mourdock's growing confidence, and it's not just because many of the voters he talks to say exactly what he wants to hear. He has the backing of most of the state's Tea Party groups, and national conservative groups FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth are bringing big money to defeat Senator Lugar.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When Dick Lugar moved to Washington 35 years ago, the national debt was less than a trillion dollars. Now it's over $15 trillion. What's Lugar done?
KEITH: Chris Chocola is president of the Washington-based Club for Growth.
CHRIS CHOCOLA: It really is about the direction of our country, the culture of the Senate and our ability to really face up to the challenges that have been created over the last 35 years.
KEITH: Chocola says GOP politics have changed since Lugar was first elected. His group's emphasis is on smaller government and dealing with the deficit, and that has increasingly become the focus of the Republican Party.
CHOCOLA: He's a great American in many ways, but he hasn't recognized the realities of the political environment and the challenges we face as a country because he's simply been there too long and he, I think, has lost the context of where America needs to go.
KEITH: Things like seniority on a committee, or occasionally working across party lines, or even bringing federal money back home used to be an asset. Now, they're marks of being a Washington insider. Senator Lugar doesn't buy into the criticism of people like Chocola, and he's not convinced voters will, either.
LUGAR: People really do not like to see big money, globs of big money, being put on television and television ads which have nothing to do whatsoever with Indiana, but have everything to do with the clout of these particular groups.
KEITH: There are outside superPACs backing Lugar, too, and Lugar's campaign is all over the airwaves with its own ads. Both candidates seem resigned to the fact that this campaign is in the midst of becoming an air war where both will take a beating. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Straight-up news on this year's election all this year, right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.