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Is Mark Pryor the guy who will defy the trends against Democrats?

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., holds a pan of raccoon meat at the Gillett Coon Supper in Gillett, Ark. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
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Mark Pryor is trying to buck national and local trends against Democrats in one of this year's most competitive elections with one major asset: Arkansans like him. Still, it's not clear that will be enough.

An NBC News/Marist poll released Monday found 50 percent of Arkansas registered voters have favorable impressions of Pryor, compared with 35 percent unfavorable. The poll wasn't a fluke - Pryor boasted a positive 47 to 38 percent approval-disapproval margin for handling his job as senator in a New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

Those positive ratings translated to an 11-point lead in the Senate race against Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark). When asked how they would vote,  registered voters picked Pryor 51 percent to 40 percent over Republican Tom Cotton, nearly matching Pryor's 10-point edge in the NYT/Kaiser poll but a significantly wider margin than other polls have shown. Both polls were among registered voters, with Pryor's edge likely to shrink among those who actually cast ballots in a year where Democratic turnout is expected to lag.

Indeed, the recent polls also mark a turnaround from Pryor's worst ratings during October's government closure. That month, a University of Arkansas poll found Pryor's approval ratings in negative territory after almost a decade of popular marks. Pryor is far more popular than former Senator Blanche Lincoln at the same time four years ago. Lincoln's unfavorable ratings outnumbered favorable ones by almost 2 to 1 in a May 2010 Mason Dixon/Arkansas News Bureau poll (28 percent favorable, 53 percent unfavorable). The same poll found Lincoln trailing by 17 percentage points to eventual Republican nominee John Boozman; she eventually lost by 21 points.

Pryor also benefits from his opponent's relative obscurity at this stage. More than one in five voters have no opinion of Cotton (23 percent), and those who do split evenly between favorable (38 percent) and unfavorable marks (39 percent). So far, Cotton has aimed to boost his appeal through positive biographical ads featuring his father and mother and focusing on his military service and farming background.

The the latest polling also makes clear Cotton's most potent lines of attack as the campaign intensifies. Fully six in 10 registered voters disapprove of Obama's performance as president, and 55 percent say the "new health care law" is a bad idea; 49 percent "strongly" believe this. Nearly seven in 10 voters feel the country is off on the wrong track. Pryor's easygoing persona may make him a difficult candidate to demonize, but support for the national Democratic party is not an asset (Indeed, he rarely mentions his affiliation).

Be sure to check out David Fahrenthold's excellent profile: Mark Pryor's challenge: Will Arkansas keep a Democratic senator with no big crusades?