INDIANAPOLIS - Mitt Romney was expected to amass delegates from three more states on his way toward clinching the Republican presidential nomination, but moderate Sen.Richard Lugar's toughest re-election fight in his 36-year career is emerging as the highest-profile election contest in four states with voting on Tuesday.
Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has played a key role in ratifying arms control treaties, is battling for his political survival against a tea party backed Republican challenger, seeking to convince voters that their six-term senator is a Washington insider more interested in compromising with liberals than representing conservatives back home.
Wisconsin Democrats were preparing to pick a candidate to run against Republican Gov. Scott Walker in just the third gubernatorial recall election in U.S. history in a contest that has become a nationally watched battle over union rights. In North Carolina, voters were considering a referendum that would effectively ban same-sex marriages.
Although polls in Indiana signalled momentum for the challenger, Lugar hoped a heavy turnout would propel him to victory against Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
"If they come, we will win," Lugar said.
However, absentee voting lagged nearly 40 per cent behind that of four years ago when Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton crisscrossed Indiana in their clash for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Although Lugar's best shot at victory appeared to be wooing Democrats and independents to take a Republican ballot and vote for him, that strategy also fueled Mourdock's argument that the incumbent known for his genial demeanour and reputation as a diplomat has become too moderate.
During a campaign stop Monday in Elkhart, the challenger said his supporters were eager to get to the polls.
"We have over 1,300 precincts where we will have volunteers working for all 12 hours," Mourdock said. "We have a tremendous grassroots game."
Lugar entered the race with a huge fundraising advantage over Mourdock but saw a sharp reversal of fortune in recent months as outside groups spent millions on ads pounding away at his voting record and failure to keep a home in Indiana. The deeply conservative Mourdock enjoys the support of the tea Party movement, which advocates small government, deep spending cuts and no tax increases.
Kip Tew, a former state Democratic Party chairman, said he didn't expect a surge of Democrats turning out for Lugar. The recent wave of TV attack ads from the Lugar campaign against Mourdock have "ruined Dick Lugar's brand in the state," he said.
"You might not see as much as if Sen. Lugar had made a positive appeal to being a statesman and trying to govern from the centre," Tew said.
The winner will face Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in the November election. Polls show Lugar handily defeating Donnelly in the November vote, but when voters were surveyed about Mourdock's chances against Donnelly, the men were running neck and neck.
Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, was expected to coast to victory in Indiana, West Virginia and North Carolina. He has no serious primary challengers left: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum dropped out in April and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich left the race last week. Texas Rep. Ron Paul is still contesting the nomination, but he lags far behind in the delegate count.
Romney is 288 delegates shy of officially clinching the Republican nomination, according to an Associated Press count. There are 107 delegates at stake Tuesday, and Romney could win about 100 if he does well.
The former Massachusetts governor struggled through a prolonged primary this winter and spring, fending off challenges from the right, particularly in Southern states. Romney all but sealed the contest after a win in Wisconsin's primary in early April. Santorum decided to leave the race ahead of the primary in his home state of Pennsylvania and endorsed Romney in an email to supporters Monday night.
"The primary campaign certainly made it clear that Gov. Romney and I have some differences. But there are many significant areas in which we agree," Santorum wrote, citing common ground in economic, social and foreign policy.
He added: "Above all else, we both agree that President Obama must be defeated. The task will not be easy. It will require all hands on deck if our nominee is to be victorious. Gov. Romney will be that nominee and he has my endorsement and support to win this the most critical election of our lifetime."
According to recent polls, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett leads former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk for the right to run for Wisconsin governor in a historic recall election against Walker. Opponents of Walker forced the recall vote largely stemming from his successful push to end nearly all collective bargaining rights for most state workers.
Walker has emerged as a national conservative hero, shattering fundraising records in Wisconsin by collecting $25 million, mostly from out-of-state donors. Walker has embodied the Republican rise to power in 2010 and hopes to avoid becoming just the third governor to be recalled in U.S. history.
In North Carolina, voters were considering a referendum that would define marriage as between a man and a woman, effectively slamming the door on same-sex marriages. Political observers expected the measure to pass.
In the campaign's final days, Obama Cabinet members voiced support for same-sex marriage, former President Bill Clinton has lent his voice to robocalls opposing the amendment, and 93-year-old evangelist Billy Graham has been featured in full-page newspaper ads backing the gay-marriage ban.