The Statehouse File
The most interesting thing about a recent poll in the Senate battle was not the horserace numbers but the fact that nearly a quarter of likely Republican primary voters have not yet decided how they will cast their ballots.
That number raised the stakes in a Senate debate that took place last Wednesday and — despite some discussion that the event was a yawner — both candidates took advantage.
The Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll — released April 5 — showed incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar with 42 percent of the likely Republican primary voters surveyed and his challenger, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, with 35 percent. The spread is within the poll's margin of error.
Importantly, the poll found 23 percent of GOP voters are undecided – which means those Hoosiers will likely determine the outcome of the race.
Pollsters Christine Matthews of Bellwether Research and Fred Yang of Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group said the undecided voters are probably folks who are considering a vote against Lugar, a six-term senator. That could be because they're worried about his age or maybe because they're not sure about his politics anymore.
But these voters may not know enough about Mourdock to commit their votes to him either, Matthews said.
Enter the debate.
This was Mourdock's opportunity to introduce himself to voters in his own words and to show Hoosiers that he can be senatorial. In both ways, I think, he succeeded.
Mourdock appeared prepared and knowledgeable. He was serious and respectful, which is no small thing in a race marked by sometimes misleading attack ads. He challenged Lugar but only gently.
He talked about things that his base supporters – tea party voters – cherish but he did not go overboard in appealing to them.
Lugar, meanwhile, had an opportunity to convince those undecided voters that he is still the senator they have supported for years.
Lugar showed that – even at 80 years old – he's sharp on the issues. He talked about his conservative values and how they've been shaped by his service in the Navy and his work on an Indiana family farm. He talked fondly about Hoosier communities and businesses, a subtle defense to criticism that he lives in a home in Virginia.
And he didn't run away from his 35 years in the Senate. Instead of trying to portray himself as a Washington D.C. outsider — as so many incumbent Congressional members try to do in an election year — Lugar spoke proudly about the work he's done in the Senate. Several times after Mourdock explained about how he'd vote if elected on various issues, Lugar emphasized how he already has voted.
For those who watched — or saw the media coverage of the debate later — there was much to learn.
Unfortunately, there could have been even more. But inexplicably, the Indiana Debate Commission — which selected the questions from those sent in by voters — didn't give the candidates an opportunity to address some of the issues on which there are potential or existing differences in opinion or philosophy.
There was no question about the candidates' approaches to presidential appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal district and appeals courts. Lugar has said a president generally should be permitted to appoint judges that are qualified and the Senate's role is not to block their confirmations for political reasons. Mourdock has said he would vote against confirmation of liberal judicial nominees.
Nor was there a question about the federal bailout or stimulus bills. Lugar has supported some of those proposals and said of the auto bailout, in particular, that "our economic situation is such that failure of the Detroit three could trigger much broader damage to the entire U.S. economy." Mourdock, meanwhile, sued the federal government to stop the Chrysler bailout, taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite a large number of Chrysler jobs in Indiana.
Of course, no debate can cover every topic. But the questions posed by voters at the Indiana Debate Commission event were even confusing sometimes. At one point, Lugar even had to ask moderator Phil Bremen to repeat a question and afterwards both candidates appeared perplexed. I know I was.
The Indiana Debate Commission is providing an invaluable service to voters in brokering debates in an atmosphere that makes them difficult to arrange. We can hope that the next one — which will take place before the general election — will include questions that help voters better understand the candidates' views.
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.