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The Right-Hand Man 

Asa Hutchinson wants voters to keep politics and religion apart in his campaign for the Senate. Will we? Should We?

click to enlarge ASA HUTCHINSON: At 35 image
  • John McDermott
  • ASA HUTCHINSON: At 35.

For a first-time political candidate, there probably isn't anything that can match Announcement Day, that morning when the inchoate leader strides to a bank of microphones and tosses his or her Stetson — 0r, as a Fayetteville rip-and-misread radio newsman once called it, stepson — into the ring. Nothing will be quite that fine again. Campaign schedules will get fouled up; reporters' questions will get tougher; contributors will scale down their pledges or renege on them entirely; the candidate will endure the humiliation of having a handshake spurned by some steely-eyed, snuff dipping old gaffer in overalls and a gimme cap for reasons that might have to do with political philosophy or might be dictated by nothing more significant than the cut of the candidate's suit, or the length of his hair.

But not on Announcement Day. Announcement Day belongs to the candidate. The polls haven't solidified; the fatigue hasn't set in. The audience is vociferously and unanimously supportive, unless the candidate has been so unwise as to offend Say McIntosh at some point in the past, and reporters who ask hard questions can be assured in all honesty that "those issues will be addressed in detail as the campaign develops." Announcement Day is the reward we give our candidates for all the bad food, bad coffee, bad advice, and bad company they'll have to put up with for the next few months. It is a day — perhaps the only day — during which the candidate won't wonder if it is all worth it.

Asa Hutchinson had his Announcement Day on January 13, a Monday, and from all indications, it was a successful one. There was no element of surprise, but political announcements aren't meant to be surprises any more; they're ceremonies that confirm what everyone has known for months, and aside from giving the candidate a trouble-free day in the sun, they serve mainly to allow headline writers to use Stock Head Number 564: "(Name of Candidate] Makes it Official; To Run for (Name of Office)."

First in his hometown of Bentonville; then in Fort Smith, where he had cracked the statewide media as a federal prosecutor; then in the rotunda of the state Capitol at Little Rock; and at airport press conferences in Jonesboro and Texarkana — Asa Hutchinson announced that he would run for the United States Senate, as a Republican, against the incumbent Democrat Dale Bumpers, a man who had himself come out of relative obscurity more than fifteen years ago to make a name for himself in Arkansas politics.

The rite had all the required trappings: Tim Hutchinson, the candidate's brother and a Republican state representative, spoke, as did Ed Bethune, his sailboat tan only slightly yellowed by the Arkansas winter. The family — a smiling, attractive wife and four of the cleanest children in Arkansas — were attired in outfits featuring plenty of Razorback red.

Hutchinson himself wore touches of scarlet — his tie was of red silk, tied in a military knot, and two peaks of a carefully folded red handkerchief peeped from the breast pocket of his suit coat. The remainder of his ensemble was almost funereal: dark blue suit, black wing-tip perforated bals, white broadcloth dress shirt. A wristwatch and a wedding band were his only ornamentations. The outfit, together with his youthful visage, gave Hutchinson the appearance of a high school senior delivering a valedictory address wearing the practical, serviceable suit his parents had insisted upon, but asserting his own taste with the gaudy accessories of a timid but hopeful young blade.

In his prepared announcement, Hutchinson followed what has become the traditional line for Republicans running in a state where a lot of voters still have a hard time voting for a Republican even when they agree with him. He barely mentioned the Republican Party, instead emphasizing his allegiance to "conservative policies," "traditional values," "a strong defense," and his opposition to "excessive taxes and government controls."

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