(CNN) – Given their hard-fought campaign battles, Wednesday night’s debate between Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar and State Treasurer Richard Mourdock could have devolved into a bruising political smackdown.
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“In this debate tonight, you are going to hear that, while we are both Republicans, we will agree on much – but we will also disagree on much,” Mourdock said in his opening remarks.
Instead, the first and only debate between Lugar - vying for a seventh term - and the tea party-backed Mourdock who wants the Senate seat was perhaps more remarkable for its politesse than its impoliteness.
Long before Wednesday night’s debate, each side had lobbed harsh attacks against the other.
Lugar’s campaign has accused Mourdock of running a highly negative campaign primarily funded by special interest groups outside of Indiana. It has also accused Mourdock of sullying, what the campaign considers, Lugar’s distinguished record of service - and “bullying” Indiana voters.
Mourdock’s campaign has seized on Lugar’s long voting record – and his penchant for working with Democrats - to cast him as an unreliable conservative. It also has highlighted the fact that Lugar has not lived in Indiana since 1977.
Yet, for all of the pre-debate mudslinging, very little of it flew Wednesday night.
Instead, there were several moments where both men not only agreed with each other – but even complemented each other.
As expected of two men fighting for the conservative vote, both agreed that President Obama’s economic and foreign policies were bad for the nation. Similarly, both men bemoaned what conservatives see as excessive government regulation.
“Over regulation is everywhere,” Lugar said at one point. “And during the Obama administration you almost have the feeling that folks in those bureaus feel its now or never in terms of trying to control business.”
“Without a doubt, the most important thing we can do to start the economy rolling again, is to roll back the size of government,” Mourdock replied. “You know, Sen. Lugar has admitted that this regulatory environment is out of control. And it absolutely is.”
Similarly, both men praised House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal.
“I commend him because he really has set forth, in a scholarly way, how the cuts can occur,” Lugar said. “He offers, once again, an opportunity for the Congress to act. And for the public to react favorably to that.”
“Certainly Sen. Lugar and I agree that it is a travesty that the president of the United States cannot present a budget,” Mourdock said moments later.
In yet another example, Mourdock complimented Lugar while explaining how he was asked to run for the seat.
“When I was asked by Republican county and state committee members to run for this office - I was somewhat surprised,” Mourdock said. “And one reason why is because all of us have great respect for Sen. Lugar’s time with the Foreign Relations committee.”
But the courtesies only lasted so long.
Moments after complimenting Lugar’s time dealing with foreign affairs – Mourdock made a rare pounce.
“It’s been sad, I think, that the sanctions that have been out that (Arizona Republican) Sen. (Jon) Kyl has tried to bring forward have unilateral sanctions with the United States government against Iran, Syria and North Korea is 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 we care about world peace and we don’t want to see those nations develop nuclear arms.”
Lugar defended himself: “I thoroughly work, everyday, with Jon Kyl. He’s a good partner, with regard to all of this. The United States has sanctions… The real problem is to make sure that we get the Russians aboard, we get the Chinese aboard, we get others aboard – who right now are undercutting those efforts. And that’s going to require some very strong diplomacy.”
In another instance, Mourdock went after Lugar using one of the senator’s signature issues: the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, with Russia. The treaty resumed mutual inspections of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals
“When the START treaty was being negotiated, it was the Russians who were saying it had to be signed by December 31 of 2010 – or they were going to walk away from the table,” Mourdock said. “You know in my 31 years in the business world, I’ve negotiated a lot of contracts. Anytime someone on the other side of the table says, ‘It’s got to be done by that date,’ it’s always a better deal for them than it is for us.”
Lugar appeared miffed.
“I managed the START Treaty on the floor of the senate,” the senator responded. “And thank goodness it passed when it did. Because we had no American boots on the ground. The last START treaty had expired during the previous Bush administration. And it was very important we had our military, as well as civilian personnel, back there.”
Mourdock also criticized Lugar on a domestic issue.
“As I mentioned, we need to protect Social Security, Mourdock said. “And there were at least two votes in the not too distant past when Mr. Lugar went the other way. There were two calls to have some benefits from social security go to people who were actually in the country illegally. I would have voted the opposite way in those votes. I would not have accepted those votes.”
Lugar shot back: “That’s unfair. I did not have votes for illegal Social Security payments to persons.”
Even with those exchanges, the bulk of the hour-long debate did not include any of the harsh rhetoric that has been exchanged by both sides in the campaign. Some issues that have particularly inflamed the campaign season were not even discussed during the debate: Lugar’s support for the 2008 financial bailout and the fact that he has not actually lived in Indiana since 1977.
Similarly, Lugar did not go after Mourdock onstage with the same attacks his campaign has lobbed against the state treasurer.
Was it a missed opportunity for both men?
Lugar’s campaign praised the senator’s performance.
“Supporters say Sen. Dick Lugar's debate performance tonight demonstrated once again why Lugar remains one of the most popular figures in Indiana politics – his knowledge, his stature and his readiness to tackle problems facing Indiana and America,” a Lugar campaign statement said.
And yet unlike Lugar on stage, the statement criticized Mourdock for running “a negative campaign for more than a year. Now, D.C. special interest groups are paying for the campaign Mourdock couldn't muster, discrediting Lugar's distinguished record and bullying Indiana voters.”
When contacted by CNN, Mourdock’s campaign did see the rare attempts at drawing distinctions as a missed opportunity.
“The distinctions certainly were a challenge with the questions that were asked,” Mourdock Campaign Manager Jim Holden said. “It’s difficult for example to bring up the Second Amendment in a question about Social Security reform.”
Holden said the campaign intended for Mourdock to echo in the debate the sharp contrasts from the campaign itself.
“His first goal was to show, to a lot of voters … who are willing to take a look at him that, one, he is a competent, conservative, capable alternative. I think we checked that box.”
“Goal number two was to draw contrasts. I think he did that as best he could in the confines of the questions. Would I have loved for him to get a question about judicial nominees?...Bailouts, Second Amendment? Those would have been great questions for a Republican Primary audience. But you know, we didn’t get those questions.”
Hoosiers will decide between the two men in the Republican primary on May 8.
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