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Sen. Dick Lugar trails GOP rival in poll. A surge of tea party power?

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"Tea party activists are quite aware that they're being written off now, even though the tea party overall has had enormous impact on the presidential primaries, because Republican conservatives are, in essence, holding the party hostage," says Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol, coauthor of "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism."

"But if they don't succeed in knocking off any senator, the kind of terror that they hold for incumbent officeholders will dissipate," she adds. "On the other hand, if the Republicans take the House, Senate, and the presidency, they'll radically change the shape of public policy in three months – they're not going to fiddle around. And knocking off Lugar would make that easier to do."

"People are reading a lot into this election nationally, and that's because there is, in fact, a lot at stake – both for the country and for the tea party," says Diane Hubbard, cofounder of the Indianapolis Tea Party, who runs Mourdock's grass-roots campaign team.

Born into a farming family, Lugar, a former Indianapolis mayor, remains an icon of Indiana, a political patron saint. He won his last election, to his sixth term, with 87 percent of the vote.

But these days Lugar isn't answering a lot of questions about foreign policy, his specialty. He's talking hogs and corn prices at agricultural fairs and defending a "35-year conservative record" by voicing his support for the Fair Tax Act, pushing for the end to the estate tax, and chastising the Obama administration for its stance on the Keystone XL oil pipeline – all sweet spots for restive Republicans.

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