Monica Boyer, one of the leaders of Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, said she, like most other Indiana tea partyers, had always voted for Lugar because "he had an 'R' in front of his name."
The tipping point, she said, was when Lugar voted to confirm President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. That was a "hard wake-up call," she said, that spurred tea partyers to dig deeper into Lugar's voting record. There, she said, they discovered votes for an assault weapons ban and other moderate stances that have led critics to say Lugar is Obama's "favorite Republican."
"We learned how to use the roll call system. That's probably his worst nightmare right now," Boyer said.
The tightening of the GOP race has left Democrats giddy. Pushing their own candidate, U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, they look at what once was considered a safe Senate seat for Republicans as now in play in the general election.
Hatch, who needs 60 percent of the state GOP convention delegates to win on the first ballot, appears to be faring better in Utah. Supporters have spent more than a year emphasizing the importance of his seniority as the top Republican on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and his influence on federal land issues and the next round of military base closings.
"I'm in a position that benefits Utah in a fantastic way," Hatch said. "This going to be my last term. I'm committed to that. But it's going to be the best six years you've seen."
That argument has played well with state GOP convention delegates, some of whom said during recent caucus meetings they feared having two first-term senators from the state. It also was underscored in an endorsement by leading Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, who is extremely popular among Utah Republicans.
Dan Liljenquist, a former state senator who seems to be Hatch's strongest challenger, has tried minimize the seniority issue by highlighting the increased debt and spending on benefit programs during Hatch's tenure.
"Is seniority so important that we feel forced to make the same decisions for the same people that got us into this mess? For me, leadership trumps seniority every time. There is a time for new leadership, and that time is now," Liljenquist said.
FreedomWorks director Russ Walker said his group will continue to work for Hatch's "retirement" after spending nearly $650,000 leading up to the March caucus meetings.
But he acknowledged it isn't as easy to paint differences between Hatch and his opponents as it was in 2010, when Bennett was being hammered for supporting the Troubled Assets Relief Program and had co-sponsored a bipartisan health care overhaul.
"It's a little more challenging this cycle because everybody is saying the same things," Walker said. "We have to define the differences."
For Lugar, those differences may boil down to whether Indiana voters think he's conservative enough.
Polling shows Mourdock closing as money flows into the race from both sides. Klingenstein's pro-Lugar group plans to spend upward of $1 million on the race, and Walker said FreedomWorks plans to expand its opposition to Lugar. Another pro-Lugar super PAC, Hoosiers for Economic Growth, is raising $1.75 million in its effort.
Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Lugar protege who has headlined fundraisers for him in Indiana and Washington, said it's been so long since Lugar has had a competitive race that many voters don't have much of an image of him. That has hurt Lugar's efforts to defuse questions about his residency and roots in the state, according to Daniels.
"He was in nothing but tough races, until he wasn't," Daniels said. "There's probably a couple of generations of voters that don't have all the information that people did back then."
Associated Press writer Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
Tom LoBianco can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/tomlobianco .
Josh Loftin can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshloftin
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