In making that argument, Donnelly has touted his opposition to Democratic leadership on key issues such as climate change legislation and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. But Republican candidate Richard Mourdock and his supporters have spent millions of dollars on ads arguing that Donnelly would amount to no more than another vote for Democratic leaders in Washington.
"I don't agree with everything he's done, clearly I don't. I voted against issue after issue after issue he supports," Donnelly said of the president. "But I have never understood a campaign like Mr. Mourdock's where they're focus is on saying that 'You know the president.' I knew George Bush, I respected George Bush, I respect Barack Obama, because they are the presidents of the United States."
Democratic candidates' support for the top of their ticket is almost universally expected, but Democrats in conservative states like Indiana have often tried to distance themselves from the party leadership. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who campaigned for Donnelly last month, said earlier this year he had not yet committed to voting for Obama because of his energy and environmental policies.
Donnelly has walked a careful line through the race, touting his opposition to some Democratic priorities such as energy legislation, while heartily defending his support for others such as the federal health care law. Indiana's battle has turned into a debate over who can better compromise and work across party lines, ironically, in the vein of Lugar, who lost the Republican primary over allegations that he compromised too much in Washington.
At stake in the Indiana race is control of the Senate as Democrats and Republicans battle over slim margins of control. Republicans have accused Donnelly of being a guaranteed vote for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but Donnelly left open the possibility of voting for a Republican to lead the chamber.
Asked if he would support Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for majority leader, he said "I don't know who I'd support." Asked again if he would consider voting for any Republican to lead the chamber he said "I'd consider voting for the best person."
But his support for a Republican leader seems highly unlikely, based on Senate rules that would effectively require Donnelly to caucus with Republicans in order to support a potential Republican majority leader.
The northern Indiana congressman talked extensively Wednesday about his work with congressional Republicans on issues ranging from the federal transportation bill to the stalled farm bill. Throughout the interview Donnelly said his own experience proves he can best work with both sides, arguing at one point that Mourdock would sooner leave Washington to campaign for other Republicans than try to work with Democrats.
Neither candidate has talked much about their personal lives on the campaign trail, instead focusing most of their time attacking each other. But Donnelly opened up Wednesday, saying his work ethic came from the death of his mother when he was 10 and values his father taught him growing up in South Bend, that even though his family may not need government support, others might.
"I was the chief cook and bottle washer for all of high school, and I cook for my family," Donnelly said, noting that he's not accustomed to talking about his own life. "If you want to know the core of who I am and who my family is and how I view things — my mom died when I was 10 years old, and somebody said to my father, 'You know, your kids can get social security survivors benefits.' And he said 'Look, I work, I take care of my kids. That's for people who need it right now.'"