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Early desperation 

I wouldn’t have started thinking about how bad things are for Asa Hutchinson if the state Republican Party hadn’t called my attention to it.

The May 23 primaries are still a month away, and Hutchinson doesn’t have an opponent for the Republican nomination for governor, so there’s no immediate reason to focus on his candidacy.

However, last week the Arkansas Republican Party issued a long press release attacking the tax record of Mike Beebe, the Democrat who will face Hutchinson in the general election.

Calling him “the $10 billion man,” the party’s executive director listed every revenue vote Beebe made during 20 years in the state senate, holding him personally responsible for everything from raising hunting and fishing license fees in 1983 to establishing a public transit trust fund in 2001. With a little unfair accounting (extrapolating the net effects of the measures since they were enacted), Beebe got pegged for $10 billion worth of tax increases — even though the annual state budget is less than $5 billion.

So while the tax-raising charge was not unexpected (any responsible legislator is susceptible to it), this particular barrage amounted to wild accusation and inflated rhetoric. Plus, the timing was curious. Why throw Beebe’s entire voting record at him in the middle of April?

The excuse for the indictment was the April 17 tax filing deadline, but two developments loomed large. The same day, Beebe submitted a campaign finance report showing he had already broken the record for the most money raised in an Arkansas gubernatorial campaign. During the March reporting period, he raised almost twice as much as Hutchinson and extended his overall money advantage by over $1.5 million.

And two days earlier, Rasmussen Reports released its latest poll showing Beebe had opened up an 11-point lead over Hutchinson among likely voters.

It’s easy to understand, then, why the Republican Party was desperate to change the subject. But in doing so they shed light on the state of the Hutchinson campaign, which is already showing desperation in other ways as well.

For instance, this month Hutchinson expressed support for a bill sponsored by his nephew, state Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson, that would have allowed a small rural high school to be exempted from offering state-mandated education courses. Coming from a guy who until that point was trying to portray himself as a bold reformer in contrast to Beebe’s conventional get-along style, this was a blatant attempt to pander for votes.

Hutchinson needs those votes badly because even in a state where Republicans are in the minority, he can’t count on unanimous Republican support. The party is divided between business interests and social conservatives, and successful Republicans like Mike Huckabee have kept them together.

Hutchinson always has been closely aligned with the social conservatives, but he is having trouble holding on to the other crucial half of the party. Recently the CEO of Wal-Mart, Lee Scott, held a fundraiser for Beebe near the company’s headquarters in Northwest Arkansas, which is Hutchinson’s home turf. It won’t go unnoticed in the business community that the largest company in the state, which usually supports Republicans, is backing Beebe. For Hutchinson, who presumably had a relationship with Wal-Mart when he represented Northwest Arkansas in Congress, it is the equivalent of having one hand tied behind his back.

But even the hand that remains free is more challenging than helpful. Hutchinson needs to broaden his support beyond the social conservative base, which is only a small portion of the electorate. But the right-wing faithful are a demanding bunch, and if Hutchinson wanders too far afield, he risks losing their loyalty. Then he’ll be left with almost nothing.

Add to that the fact that this is a pretty bad year to be a Republican. For the four years before he returned to Arkansas to run for governor, Hutchinson worked in the Bush administration, which is not exactly something he’ll be bragging about while Bush’s job approval ratings remain among the lowest ever (32 percent when we went to press). Before that, he was a congressman best known for managing the impeachment of President Clinton, another inconvenient experience he’d rather not discuss.

That means Hutchinson basically has to disown the last 10 years of his public service record.

Now it makes sense why the Hutchinson campaign always says “the race is expected to be extremely tight” and “this race will be close to the end.” That’s their fervent wish.

The reality is that Hutchinson has only half a minority party behind him, half the money of his opponent and unfortunate timing. No wonder they’re already trying to throw the kitchen sink.

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