When Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, he often told the story of his favorite bipartisan bromance. "Politics doesn't have to divide us," he said in his announcement speech. "I've worked with Republican Senator Dick Lugar." Obama went on to affectionately name-check Indiana's longest-serving Senator in a debate, on the campaign stump and even in a television ad. Lugar, in turn, praised Obama, even though he'd endorsed John McCain. "I'm pleased we had the association Senator Obama describes," he told reporters then.
These days, however, Lugar has no nice words for the President. The mild-mannered Hoosier calls Obamacare unconstitutional, trashes "Obama's bankrupting budget plans" and says his refusal to approve a Keystone XL pipeline extension is "incomprehensible obstructionism." In fact, Lugar now denies that he was ever chummy with the President. "We have not had a close relationship at any point," he tells TIME. "I was never hoping to be close to him."
Lugar may genuinely think Obama is a rotten President. But it's also true that he can no longer afford to look like Obama's pal. After decades of easy re-elections in Indiana--a state Obama carried in 2008 but probably won't in 2012--Lugar is facing a fierce primary challenge from a Tea Party--backed opponent, state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who brands Lugar "Obama's favorite Republican." That has forced Lugar, a policy wonk with little appetite for political combat, into the fight of his political career as he struggles to woo conservative voters in advance of the May 8 primary.
To be sure, the Tea Party case against Lugar, 80, is about more than Obama. Lugar supported the bank bailouts, the 2011 debt-ceiling increase and various earmark-filled spending bills. But nothing brings out the patriots in the tricorn hats more than a mention of the O word. Mourdock snipes that Lugar "has seemed starstruck with Obama" since they served in the Senate and has "carried the water" for the President. It's true that Lugar voted for both of Obama's Supreme Court nominees and helped him pass the 2010 START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. But he also opposed Obama's health care, stimulus, and Wall Street--reform bills and maintains perfect ratings from the Christian Coalition and National Right to Life. "That is obviously not a voting record that Barack Obama would have compiled," Lugar says. He's even turned on Obama's foreign policy, angrily complaining that Obama didn't consult Congress before bombing Libya.
That hasn't placated Tea Party activists or the national organizations that support them, which are desperate to rattle the Washington establishment now that Mitt Romney has escaped their wrath. Washington-based groups like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth have been pumping in money to support Mourdock, a 60-year-old former energy executive. Still, Lugar enjoys an overwhelming cash advantage, having raised more than $4 million--far more than Mourdock's haul.