INDIANAPOLIS — After struggling at times during the early Republican primary campaign, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar sounded more like the senator he's been for the past 35 years during a debate Wednesday night with Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
Mourdock, though, went after what is considered Lugar's strength, challenging why he didn't support sanctions proposed by Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl against rogue countries such as Iran, North Korea and Syria.
"It's something that Sen. Lugar, last I knew, was still opposing," Mourdock said. "He wanted to do that through the U.N. I think there are times we need to act unilaterally to put the pressure on those nations to make sure they understand they know we care about world peace and we don't want to see those nations develop nuclear arms."
Lugar said he works daily with Kyl and that the United States leads in trying to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capabilities.
"The real problem is making sure we get the Russians aboard, we get the Chinese aboard, we get others aboard who right now are undercutting those efforts," Lugar said. "That's going to require some very strong diplomacy."
The candidates' only debate comes as both ramp up their attacks in the race, which has shaped up as one of the toughest election battles ever for the 80-year-old senator once considered so invincible that Democrats in 2006 chose not to field a challenger.
A strong anti-incumbent mood and pressure from the right to define who really is a conservative have forced Lugar into a frantic defense as he seeks a seventh term, and a series of polls has shown the tea party-backed Mourdock closing in in recent months.
Until this week, the Lugar team had spent most of its money attacking Mourdock for his attendance at state boards, alleging that he doesn't personally attend enough meetings, and attacking President Barack Obama for blocking construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline out of Canada. But Lugar began the week airing a statewide ad accusing Mourdock of leaning too heavily on "D.C. outsiders" to carry him through the race.
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Mourdock occasionally struggled answering intricate policy questions, meanwhile, that played more to Lugar's strengths. In one case, Mourdock seemed to errantly state that a federal ethanol mandate that started in 2005 began in 2011.
The debate is a stark difference from a nasty Republican primary battle that has been dominated thus far by questions over Lugar's residency and his support for President Obama's Supreme Court nominees.
Before the debate, a couple dozen Lugar supporters and opponents lined the street yelling and waving signs as cars drove by.