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First Thoughts: Five reasons Lugar likely loses

Five reasons Lugar likely loses … The most overwritten story will be impact of the Tea Party … Biden’s gay marriage comments took the White House way off message … Romney continues to struggle with that pivot foot – did he forget how to be a moderate?… Breaking down tonight’s races… Ron Paul’s supporters will be out in droves at convention.

From NBC’s Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, Natalie Cucchiara, Carrie Dann, and Brooke Brower

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaks with reporters off the Senate floor before a series of votes, Tuesday, April 24, 2012, on Capitol Hill.

*** Five reasons Lugar likely loses: Bob Bennett’s loss in 2010 should have been a wake-up call for every longtime senator. And it was for several -- Orrin Hatch saw the Tea Party freight train coming, but fought back early and often and looks likely to win another term. But the message didn’t apparently get to the man who came into office the same year as Hatch – Richard Lugar (R-IN), who’s expected to see his career come to an end today with a loss a GOP primary today to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. There are five reasons we point to: (1) Residency and outreach: Lugar hasn’t lived in Indiana for years and wasn’t able to say what address was on his driver’s license. Mourdock exploited it. And Lugar didn’t do enough outreach with local GOP establishment or Tea Party leaders. Lugar disputes that, telling NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell: “I've been perfectly connected all the way along. It’s a ridiculous charge. How can anybody be more Hoosier? I've got a farm out here that I continue to work with my sons. I manage it on behalf of our family. I'm in touch every week with everybody in the state, usually on the ground with visits but with our staffs, trying to meet almost every challenge of individual Hoosiers or groups.”

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about the vote on gay marriage in North Carolina, whether Sen. Dick Lugar's political career will reach its end on Tuesday and who Scott Walker's primary opponent will be in Wisconsin.

*** Other reasons: (2) Ignoring the recent past: Last year, Republicans walked Lugar through what went wrong with Bennett, Lisa Murkowski, and Mike Castle. And what went right with John McCain -- no favorite of the Tea Party – who went after opponent J.D. Hayworth early on and never let up. Unfortunately for Lugar, strategists say, the advice was ignored. If you don’t want to change your own stances, then make the alternative unacceptable. McCain made his alternative unacceptable. (3) Campaign: he didn’t have the kind of campaign in place that was necessary to win this kind of race. Hatch and even Olympia Snowe got it, and hired top operatives. Mourdock hired people who’d been there before; (4) Message: “Lugar as statesman” just wasn’t going to get the job done. Movements have short-term memories. Mourdock’s message was simple and effective– “Dick Lugar is a fine man, but 36 years in Washington is long enough, and he’s lost touch with Indiana.”; (5) Candidate: So much of what happens in campaigns, comes from the top. As revered as Lugar is in Washington, he wasn’t able to adapt -- and failed to fully appreciate -- a changing dynamic within his party. Yesterday, for example, he continued to defend earmarks.  

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell spoke with Republican Senator Richard Lugar on his current Senate primary race and the political challenges he is facing.

*** The most overwritten story will be the effect of the Tea Party: Mourdock tells NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell that it’s fair to credit the Tea Party with the win, if he pulls it off: “Certainly, it’s fair, because the Tea Party has been very active and without question, they've provided the bulk of the volunteers to this huge grassroots game that we have.” Ideological supporters, like the Club for Growth and Tea Party Express, spent money and organized rallies. But, the fact remains, if Lugar loses, it will be for all the reasons incumbents have lost for a century. There will be a lot written about the Tea Party this and ideology that, but Lugar would have lost, because he made it easy to lose. He made it easy for Mourdock to sell this simple message – one challengers dream of – that he’s gone Washington, and he’s out of touch. Mourdock and the Tea Party made Lugar actually run a campaign. And Lugar, who hasn’t had a political fight in 30 years, wasn’t able to run a modern campaign.

*** Real World Impact: Indiana will be a Senate seat that’s in play for at least a little while. The question is going to be, can Mourdock become Ron Johnson, not Ken Buck? Marco Rubio, not Sharron Angle? Ideologically, Indiana isn’t Delaware, but it’s also not Kentucky. The downside for Mourdock is he’s still not that well known and still more easily definable. The real challenge will be – does he define himself on his own terms or do Democrats take this seriously and try to do it for him? Do Democrats define their own candidate Rep. Joe Donnelly for swing voters before Republicans do it for them? Republicans should be able to hold on here, but it’ll take some work and money early on, and they know it; they learned their own lessons from NV and CO in 2010.

*** What Biden’s gay-marriage comments did: Joe Biden’s off-message comments on Meet the Press on being “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage basically blew up the president’s roll out this week. Instead of yesterday being about the campaign’s version of a “Morning in America” ad and $25 million campaign to kickoff the reelection, it was about the president looking like he’s going to be the last person in his administration to support gay marriage. Today’s event in Albany is supposed to be designed to highlight job credits the White House wants Congress to enact. But instead the chatter is still about gay marriage. It’s a complete distraction. And yesterday’s White House briefing highlighted the absurdity of the president being against bans on gay marriage (like the one likely to pass today in North Carolina) but not yet being for gay marriage itself. What’s another issue you can think of where someone’s able to be against it, but not for it? It’s a hard position to defend. Just ask Jay Carney.

*** Can Obama stay quiet on the issue for another week? The NBC/WSJ poll showed the country becoming more accepting on this issue since just 2009. Then 41% favored it, 49% opposed. In March, that was reversed with 49% in favor, 40% opposed. It’s close to a majority of the country being comfortable with it, but a significant number of are still against it, including, apparently, in North Carolina, a moderate Southern state Obama won last time and where the Democratic convention will be. For anyone who thought this was some secret plan by the Obama campaign and the White House, just look at what Biden overshadowed. Instead of Obama being able to talk about gay marriage on his own terms, perhaps waiting until after the election, he and his campaign are going to have to make a decision -- look afraid of running on it or worse to be dragged into supporting it? Thursday is the fundraiser with George Clooney. How many folks at that fundraiser will be tempted to confront the president on this issue? Could it be he’s the only person in that room not yet for gay marriage? Awkward timing. The president holds a fundraiser May 14th with Ricky Martin targeting the gay community in New York. Will the president really not be able to say anything on this for the next week? By the way, how much have the politics of this issue changed? So much so that Republicans have said almost NOTHING about this dust up between Biden and Obama. The GOP of eight years ago would have publicly been trying to exploit the issue but today?

*** Where’s the pivot? A woman at a Romney town hall yesterday said President Obama should be tried for treason. Romney said nothing while on stage to correct her or dispute her. It can be debated whether the woman was trying out a bad joke or whatever. What’s not debatable is that Romney just doesn’t have great instincts and that he’s not yet in general-election mode. Another piece of evidence was an exchange with a medical student – one the Obama campaign will push today -- who asked what Romney’s “thoughts on education and financing so that more individuals like myself, who can’t afford it, but still grow up and be the future of America?” Romney’s response: to attack Obama for offering “free stuff” to ramp up support with young voters. He didn’t even attempt to empathize with the student. Romney’s still stuck in primary mode, reflexively only thinking about not offending primary voters instead of swing voters. Whether they like Obama, swing voters don’t like the toxic conversation. When he doesn’t deal with it’s a problem. Charlie Cook writes today: “Having devoted every waking hour for the last year and a half to catering to the carnivores in his party, Romney needs to cut back on the red-meat rhetoric…” Ironically, the criticism from the right during the primary was that he looked like he was too concerned about the middle. Now, he looks like he’s more concerned about primary. It’s like he forgot how to run as a moderate, which of course is why some Republicans got on board in the first place.

*** Two headlines that will make the White House smile: “National gas prices down 7 cents in past 2 weeks,” and “Deficit streak ends: Obama sees first monthly surplus.” On the gas price front, this is a reminder that there’s more wasted energy fighting the politics of gas prices than on doing something about energy.

*** More on Lugar: Lugar, who had a big war chest, outspent everyone with $2.1 million since January. But outside groups -- including the Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association, Citizens United, and Indiana Values – essentially evened the playing field for Mourdock. And all of their ads hammered Lugar, as opposed to most of Lugar’s initial ads, which were positive. The Club for Growth was the largest outside player, swooping in in late March. It increased its spending week by week, and wound up pumping in $1.3 million and outspent Lugar in the last two weeks ($358,000 to $235,000). Lugar had some help – about $546,000 -- from a PAC supporting him, American Action Network, but when it became clear Lugar would likely lose, the PAC dropped its ads. In total, there were about $2.8 million run by Lugar and supporters and $2.6 million run by Mourdock and friends (half of that coming from the Club for Growth). By the way, just look at the list of names of people who were senators in 2008, who are no longer there or retiring: Lugar, Warner, Specter, Gregg, Bennett, Snowe, Hutchison, Gordon Smith, Voinovich, Hagel; Dems: Byrd, Kennedy, Biden, Dodd, Lincoln, Nelson, Clinton. A lot of these names are why the Senate used to be known as the Upper Chamber.

*** 107 delegates at stake in tonight’s primaries: There aren’t enough delegates for Romney to clinch the nomination tonight, but here’s how it works: Indiana’s 27 delegates are winner-take-all per congressional district vote with three at stake per district. North Carolina awards 52 delegates, all of which are proportionally allocated per the statewide vote. And West Virginia awards 28 delegates, which are directly elected off the ballot with their pledged candidate printed next to their names. There is also a statewide preference vote – or “beauty contest” – that does not affect West Virginia’s delegate allocation. Polls close at 7:00pm ET in Indiana and at 7:30pm ET in North Carolina and West Virginia.

*** There will be a lot more Paul supporters at convention than his official tally shows: Ron Paul and his supporters know that it is next to impossible for the Texas Congressman to get the GOP nomination, but that has not stopped their continuing efforts to secure as much influence as possible at the Republican National Convention. Paul supporters have been flooding state conventions in order to influence party leadership elections and fill national delegate slots, including states where most delegates are already pledged to Mitt Romney. In Nevada and Massachusetts, for example, Paul supporters filled at least half of the delegate slots that will travel to Tampa (although many are pledged to cast a nominating vote for Mitt Romney). In Alaska, Iowa, and Maine, Paul supporters swung party leadership elections in their favor. Despite the fact that Romney’s nomination is nearly inevitable, Paul supporters will fill many of the seats on the Tampa convention floor. And even though many Paul supporters may be pledged to vote for Romney as the party nominee, they could throw their weight around on important votes like the Vice Presidential nominee or the party platform. And by inundating state parties with Paul-friendly leaders, they also lay solid foundation for Paul’s ideas and for a future Paul presidential run, whether it is Ron or his son Rand.

*** On the trail: Mitt Romney campaigns at Lansing Community College in Lansing, MI, at 12:35 am ET … President Obama speaks on the economy and manufacturing at SUNY-Albany. In the evening, the president will deliver the keynote address at the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies Annual Gala in Washington, DC. … Vice President Biden speaks at a rabbinical convention in Atlanta at 10:45 am ET.

Countdown to Indiana Senate/Wisconsin recall primaries: 0
Countdown to Wisconsin recall election: 28
Countdown to Arizona 8 (Giffords seat) special election: 35
Countdown to Utah Senate primary: 49 days
Countdown to Election Day: 182 days

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