By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010; A03
LITTLE ROCK -- Sharp words and millions of dollars in television advertising are turning a Democratic primary challenge to two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln into an outsize duel over the party's direction in the heartland.
Backed by national labor unions and Democratic activists, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is attacking Lincoln from the left as an uncertain senator who too often tilts right on major issues, including Wall Street, health care and the environment.
Halter contends that the seat is as good as lost to resurgent Republicans if the centrist Lincoln wins the May 18 primary. He said after leaping into the race last month, "My sense is that people want somebody to fight for them."
Lincoln counters that Halter, who returned to Arkansas to run for office after 20 years in government and business, misunderstands the Arkansas electorate. Touting moderation as a virtue, she calls herself "the rope in the tug of war."
"People expect you to take one step at a time to get where you need to be," Lincoln said in a telephone interview. "That's exactly what my career has been."
Halter's challenge, which came as little surprise to the Arkansas political establishment, quickly became a national story. Liberal Democrats, frustrated with President Obama and Congress, cheered the chance to make Lincoln pay for her opposition to a government-run health insurance option and the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize.
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow drew appreciative laughter during a recent talk at the Clinton School of Public Service when she said of Lincoln, "It's one thing to be a conservative Democrat. It's another thing to act like you don't want to be a Democrat at all."
Emily's List abandoned Lincoln, as did labor unions. She was pummeled with millions of dollars in television advertisements last year during the health-care debate. A radio advertisement from Halter declares, "She didn't stand up to the special interests. She worked for them."
"Our members have been watching Blanche's votes. They've decided enough is enough. We're not throwing our money down the well and getting nothing back from it," said Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, referring to earlier support for Lincoln. "The final straw," he said, was her decision to join Republicans in opposing the nomination of labor lawyer Craig Becker to a seat on the National Labor Relations Board.
The duel is playing out on ideological grounds, yet the contest would not have happened if Halter were not hungering for a bigger political stage.
An early devotee of Bill Clinton, a fellow Arkansas Rhodes Scholar who is supporting Lincoln, Halter served in the Clinton administration and returned to Arkansas to run for office after a profitable stint in business. He made an ill-timed -- critics say ill-considered -- foray into the 2006 governor's race against popular fellow Democrat Mike Beebe.
Halter soon dropped out, but the state's Democratic establishment has never forgiven him. He soon jumped into a crowded field for lieutenant governor and won. The position has little power, yet Halter drummed up interest in a new state lottery, predicting that it would generate $100 million a year for college scholarships.
Voters strongly backed the measure in 2008, and the first tickets went on sale last year. Halter's name is strongly identified with the project. He estimates that 28,000 students will receive scholarship money this year by graduating with grade-point averages of 2.5 or higher or scoring at least 19 on the ACT.
To critics who contend that Halter is not as well known as Lincoln, he points out that he received 57 percent of the vote in 2006 and that the lottery initiative won by nearly 2 to 1.
Much like Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who throttled Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison by relentlessly labeling her as an out-of-touch Washington denizen, Halter is criticizing Lincoln's record. He points to her vote for the bank bailout and her opposition to the carbon tax policy known as cap-and-trade. The League of Conservation Voters put her on its list of this year's "Dirty Dozen" candidates.
Counting on an anti-incumbent mood among voters, Halter cites the fact that Lincoln has spent four years in the House and nearly 12 years in the Senate with just two years off since winning her first term.
"What you hear over and over again is that 'Washington is broken,' 'it's not on our side,' " Halter said.
Lincoln has run television advertisements embracing her experience in Washington, where she chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, and distancing herself from what she depicts as juvenile gamesmanship.
In one ad, she is standing among children who are wildly throwing dollar bills into the air. She cited wasted tax dollars as the reason she voted against "more money for Wall Street," the public option, and cap-and-trade.
Another ad shows a farmer hefting hay bales. He declares, "It took us 184 years to get that chairmanship. I don't know why we'd want to give it up."
"He's not going to out-Arkansas her. She talks the talk. She walks the walk," said University of Arkansas professor Janine A. Parry, who directs the Arkansas Poll.
Lincoln invites any comparison that portrays Halter as a product of the left.
"I'm a pragmatic legislator. I look for common ground," Lincoln said as she prepared to vote against the Senate fixes to the health-care legislation -- calling the measure the wrong way to repair the bill -- after approving the overall package. "I look to solve problems in a way that makes sense for everybody."
While Arkansans are "very moderate," Lincoln said, Halter's support "comes from the far left of our party, whether it's the labor unions or the MoveOn.orgs or some of the others out there who think he's the end-all, be-all. I think he's wrong."
To Lincoln's claim that Arkansans would be making a mistake in dumping her from the Democratic ticket, Halter said in an interview, "You're not chairman of the Agriculture Committee if you're not reelected."