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U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch answers a question during an April 16 debate on the campus of Dixie State College in St. George. Jud Burkett | The Spectrum
Indiana senator and Orrin Hatch face similar tea party ire

First Published May 07 2012 07:31 pm • Last Updated Aug 28 2012 11:32 pm

Washington -- The poll numbers say he's struggling, and well-known conservatives are racing to endorse his opponent. Sen. Dick Lugar, of Indiana, faces Republican primary voters Tuesday, and he's in serious trouble.

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Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is working to avoid a similar fate in coming weeks.

Lugar and Hatch share the distinction of being the most senior Senate Republicans, winning their first elections in 1976, and now, 36 years later, they share something else: the ire of the tea party.

The same conservative activists who helped defeat Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, in 2010 have made Lugar and Hatch their top targets this year, and their arguments against the senators have been almost identical.

Opponents have painted Hatch, 78, and Lugar, 80, as out of touch and more willing to negotiate with Democrats than to hold the line on spending. "Retire Hatch" and "Retire Lugar" yard signs hint at their age, and their opponents - former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist in Utah and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in Indiana - share a slogan: "It's time."

But beyond these similarities are some vast differences that point to why Lugar may see his career end late Tuesday and why Hatch is seen as the favorite to win his party's nomination in late June.

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Political observers say Hatch and his supporters were quicker to attack his challengers and to curry favor with conservatives. He also faced attacks from fewer outside groups and, frankly, made fewer blunders than Lugar.

"I don't think they anticipated the strength of the opposition they have encountered," said Leslie Lenkowsky, an Indiana University professor who specializes in state politics and considers himself a Lugar supporter. "Some people on the Lugar campaign staff might have been a little too arrogant."

Mourdock didn't look that threatening in the beginning. He was a perennial candidate who had lost four elections before winning two terms as state treasurer. His claim to fame was suing the federal government over the bailout of the auto industry, a move that would also prove to be a liability in a state with strong ties to carmakers.

But tea party groups like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth embraced him, and Lugar had little success in changing the mind of disaffected Indiana Republicans, particularly while Mourdock and his allies hammered him for spending too little time in Indiana.

Then the residency scandal hit, or what Lenkowsky refers to as the "unforced error" that rocked the race.

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