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Richard Mourdock downplays Mitch Daniels’ Lugar endorsement in Indiana Senate race

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(Tom Strattman/AP)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Spend one day in Indianapolis this week and you'll hear repeatedly whom Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels supports in next month's Republican Senate primary.

"I'm not for Dick Lugar for what he's done, but for what he can do," Daniels says in a television and radio ad campaign which began airing here in the state Monday. "Our point of view gets heard and has a better chance to win out with Dick Lugar on the job."

[Watch the video here via YouTube.]

The governor's endorsement potentially holds significant weight in the state. Daniels, who was already popular in Indiana, is now a nationally-known figure after being heavily courted to run for president this year due to both his service as former President George W. Bush's budget director, and his current position as head of a state Barack Obama narrowly carried in 2008.

But Lugar's tea party-backed challenger, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, downplayed the endorsement during an interview with Yahoo News Monday following a candidate forum on Supreme Court nominations. He dismissed the support as merely a family thing.

"Fifteen months ago, the governor and I had several discussions while I was considering doing this and he told me then his oldest daughter's godfather is Dick Lugar," Mourdock said. "The senator and our governor have been friends for 45 years and I believe friendship-- that kind of long friendship-- ought to trump politics."

But in nearly the same breath, Mourdock said the exact opposite. "It's just politics," he added regarding the endorsement.

Whichever it is, Mourdock also took time Monday to argue that Indiana's primary voters will simply view the endorsement as one establishment candidate backing another-- and that's going to work in Mourdock's favor.

Watch Mourdock's comments for yourself in the video below:

Lugar, who was first elected to the Senate in 1976, faces a competitive challenge May 8 from Mourdock, who is backed by the tea party and other right-leaning groups. These supporters argue that Lugar has failed to uphold conservative Hoosier values in Washington.

The race is one of many primaries across the country where a right-leaning tea party candidate is testing a longtime Republican incumbent. Just this past weekend, tea party challenger Dan Liljenquist forced Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch into a primary at his state convention.

In fact, Hatch's and Lugar's races share many parallels: Both are 30-plus year Senate veterans who claim to be the longest-serving Republicans being challenged by younger, tea party conservatives; both challengers argue the long-time lawmakers became too moderate in Washington and now only reside inside the Beltway; and both incumbents are being attacked over their votes on the auto bailout and other similar actions.

But Mourdock told Yahoo News Monday that he hasn't followed the Utah race. "I really haven't," Mourdock said. "The whole process of a convention in front of a primary is so totally different."

Mourdock concedes the two elections are connected by their tea party involvement, which he heartily welcomes.

"I always start my discussions with the tea party groups with telling them, 'you know I have only three words for you: God. Bless. You.' Because the tea party's bringing the Republican party back to a more conservative base."

The tea party was front-and-center during the 2010 midterm elections, backing candidates who were up against establishment Republicans. But the movement has been mostly absent from the public eye since then with a Republican presidential race dominating politics. There's no clear tea party winner and few off-year elections and issues around which to rally in the presidential primaries.

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But that's all about to change, Mourdock says: "Some folks think the tea party has gone away because they're not out seeing 5,000 at a time waving 'Don't Tread on Me' flags. But where they are are working as volunteers in campaigns like this campaign."

"In many other states," including Utah, Mourdock added, "there's going to be a sense that the tea party liveth."

Still, it's unclear where the tea party will fit in with delegate frontrunner Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket. Romney has struggled to enthuse conservatives and has been criticized for being too moderate.

But Mourdock said off-camera Monday that his campaign's internal polling suggests any Indiana Republicans who have made up their mind and thus are more excited about their presidential pick tend to support Mourdock. This leaves voters who remain undecided about the presidential race in Lugar's corner, according to Mourdock's internal polling.

Early voting in the Indiana Senate race began April 9.

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