Ark. Republican Vying for Visibility
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 1998; Page A04
STUTTGART, Ark.Blanche Lincoln is in her element this sweltering afternoon amid the rice fields of eastern Arkansas. The Democratic candidate for Senate and former congresswoman grew up on a nearby farm and understands the challenges facing this rural community. And she knows that they know it.
"I was one of the few members of the [House] Agriculture Committee that ever walked a rice levee," Lincoln boasted to a group of farmers casually gathered around a pickup truck at an annual farming seminar. "The farms are kinda in a hurtin' way around here."
"You think the same way we do," an attentive farmer assured her.
When the men were asked by a reporter a few minutes later if any of them knew the name of Lincoln's opponent, not one did.
Republican Fay Boozman, 51, hopes to change that soon in this race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers. The ophthalmologist, state senator and nearly invisible Senate candidate who trails Lincoln by about 20 percentage points in the polls launched a paid television ad campaign last week aimed primarily at raising his profile.
"The Republican tide in Arkansas is like the underground that just keeps swelling it's unseen and suddenly it's going to burst around us," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report.
For decades, the state has been dominated by some of the biggest names in Democratic politics all of whom have either retired or are winding down their careers. Sen. David Pryor (D), one of the most popular politicians in Arkansas history, retired in 1996, and now Bumpers is stepping down. Favorite son Bill Clinton, elected governor here five times before twice winning the presidency, will not be on the ballot this year.
This turnover has provided opportunities for Republicans. Pryor was replaced by conservative Republican Sen. Tim Hutchison. Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee leads his Democratic opponent, Bill Bristow, by a 3 to 1 margin in the polls.
All of this bodes well for Boozman, who has a solid grasp of the issues and the ability to articulate his positions. Working against the soft-spoken doctor are the facts that he is virtually unknown and political glad-handing is not his strength. "I'm much more comfortable in one-on-one situations, knocking on doors. But I'm learning to tolerate public speaking," Boozman acknowledged in an interview.
His low name recognition has allowed Democrats to try to define Boozman for the voters as a one-issue extremist (he's antiabortion) who is too far to the right to represent the mainstream of the state. He speaks of reducing the role of government in people's lives. He supports eliminating the federal tax code, supports school vouchers and home-schooled his three daughters when he discovered that one of the children couldn't read in sixth grade.
Boozman and his supporters believe that Arkansans are more conservative than Lincoln and that once they hear his message he will be able to close the gap.
"Let me remind you that when I beat Bill Clinton, I moved 27 points in the last 30 days," said former Republican governor Frank White, who defeated incumbent Clinton for governor in 1980. "Anything can happen in the next 10 weeks. Nobody knows what this man stands for yet."
Republicans also hope to demonstrate that Boozman is much more issue-focused than Lincoln, who they charge is all style and little substance. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in June engaged the topic in a news story by questioning pundits about whether Lincoln was "dumb."
Lincoln's supporters point to her strengths as a skilled campaigner who has never met a hand she didn't want to shake. At the recent farm conference here, she relentlessly worked the crowd of 400 in her brown Ferragamo pumps and linen suit, handing out her cards until the place was empty. She has a perpetual smile, never looks over a potential voter's shoulder and makes sure to mention her 2-year-old twin sons at campaign events.
"Have you all seen my babies?" she asked a predominantly female audience not long ago, passing around a photo book.
Lincoln began her political career in the early '80s answering phones for then-Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.) before moving on to a series of Washington lobbying jobs. When Alexander was caught up in a House banking scandal with 487 overdrafts, Lincoln seized the opportunity in 1992 to successfully challenge her old boss for the seat.
By 1996, after two terms, she decided not to seek reelection upon learning that she was pregnant with the twins. She supports abortion rights, voted to ban the domestic production of assault weapons but opposes the Brady law, and does not support school vouchers.
Lincoln has deep support in and around her former district in rural eastern Arkansas and reminds voters that Tim Hutchison and Boozman are both from northwest Arkansas. "Diversity is very important," she said in an interview. "If my opponent were to win, you would have half the Arkansas congressional delegation from the same home town. That's pretty top-heavy."
"Boozman's situation is like running against an incumbent," said Paul Johnson, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Lincoln is really entrenched with a great deal of appeal to what I call the bubba vote."
Money is another factor. Neither candidate has an enormous amount of cash on hand at this point. Lincoln spent $1 million on her primary, leaving her with $160,000 by the end of June. Boozman is in the difficult position of having to demonstrate that he can win in order to raise the money he needs to win. By the end of June, he reported $163,000 cash on hand.
Steven Law, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said a decision will be made in September on how much money the committee will spend on the Arkansas race. He emphasized that compared with states such as California and New York, where a candidate has to spend enormous resources to advertise in multiple media markets, in Arkansas it costs far less to mount and win a statewide race.
"Our goal," said Law, "is to try and get this race in the best shape possible and then assess how competitive it looks based on the latest surveys."
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