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People used to speak of “the political season.” These days, every season is the political season.

Speculation about who'll win in 2010 is rampant, and in Arkansas, the politician most speculated about is the state's senior senator, Blanche Lincoln. Republicans didn't even field a candidate against Sen. Mark Pryor this year. No one expects Lincoln to be so fortunate.

A recent article in The New York Times listed Lincoln among a handful of Democratic senators that (unnamed) Republicans believe they can knock off in two years. The liberal group National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) evaluated the chances for Democrats to retain the 16 Democratic Senate seats that will be up for election in 2010. Lincoln's was not among the four classified as “battleground,” a term that means, apparently, “Democrats will have to fight like hell to keep this one.” (The majority leader of the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, was among the “battleground” listings. He was also one of the allegedly vulnerable senators named in the New York Times article.) Nor was Lincoln among the eight Democratic senators whose seats were rated “safe” by the NCEC. She was in a middle group, called “likely,” apparently meaning that the NCEC expects her to win, but that the race will be hard and close.

There's no question that Lincoln will run, incidentally. She already has a campaign manager, Steve Patterson of Little Rock, providing further evidence that politics is fulltime now.

Lincoln herself says she pays no attention to chatter about her political standing. “I ran for office to help Arkansas's families and small businesses and to represent Arkansas values,” she said in a prepared statement. “I remain focused on finding ways to help Arkansans stay ahead of the economic crisis that now grips our country, not media speculation about my re-election campaign in 2010.”

Republicans say Lincoln's weakness as a candidate was exposed in 2004. That may sound odd, since she got 56 percent of the vote against the Republican nominee, Jim Holt, but Holt was considered a right-wing extremist by many, a fringe candidate. A Republican strategist who wishes to remain anonymous says, “Most people expected Blanche to really run the numbers up against Holt, and she didn't.” Northwest Arkansas showed again that it's the most partisan section of the state – yellow-dog Republican – but Holt also carried some counties outside the Northwest.

The anonymous strategist and other Republicans, such as Rogers Mayor Steve Womack and former state Chairman Dennis Milligan, also mention specific issues on which they believe Lincoln is weak with voters. Lincoln may have acknowledged the criticism last week when she voted against a proposed $14 billion in loans for the auto industry. Most Democrats, including Pryor, voted for the bailout. Republicans were strongly against it.

Yet to come is a vote on bill that would allow workers at a plant to choose union representation simply by signing a card, making it easier for unions to enlist workers. Business interests, including those in Arkansas, are fiercely opposed; the unions who support the bill are supporters of the Democratic Party. At a recent public gathering in Little Rock, Lincoln was noncommittal. Members of the mostly Republican audience accused her of waltzing around the issue.

(Arkansas is a state where labor unions were never strong and grow weaker every year, but management's hatred burns as bright as ever.)

Whatever Lincoln's weaknesses, she can't be defeated without an opponent. It is here that the Republican arguments are less compelling – with one exception. Various names are mentioned as possible candidates and Womack's is among them. He's a popular, respectable Republican, but he's also taken a hard line against illegal immigrants. Holt's line was even harder, but he wasn't taken as seriously. Anti-immigrant sentiment may yet be a large factor in Arkansas politics.

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