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A tale of two races 

Senate primaries heat up as election nears.

MEASURED RESPONSE: Democratic candidates answer questions at the first official debate.
  • MEASURED RESPONSE: Democratic candidates answer questions at the first official debate.

Not Many Positives
It's probably fair to say that no other Senate primary contest in the country has garnered more attention — in time, money, ad buys and interest from outside groups — than the race between Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

The strategic goal of the Halter campaign is to out-Dem a two-term beatable incumbent by appealing to the more progressive wing of the party, to paint Lincoln as a mainstay of a Washington system that is broken and to do it all without coming across as too negative. So far, polls indicate, he's gaining ground.

The Halter campaign and its allies have issued their fair share of harsh words, but they've paled in comparison to the invective coming from Lincoln supporters. A racially tinged ad baselessly claiming Halter outsourced jobs to India is the latest example.

In their second debate, both candidates admitted to signing off on negative attacks like “Bailout Blanche” and “Dollar Bill Halter.” Halter promised to shut down bailoutblanche.com and end the site's Twitter feed, and the campaign followed through. Lincoln made no such promise, so dollarbillhalter.com is still in business. You can also see “Dollar Bill” ads on the senator's YouTube site.

But national attention may or may not translate to local interest. Recent polls show “undecided” voters at 15 to 20 percent, which is a fairly significant number for such a divisive race. One Democratic political consultant says this race once again proves that tired saying that all politics is local.

“Locally, it seems that as Blanche reintroduces herself to voters, they are reminded why they liked her in the first place, shoring up any weakening of her support caused by the barrage of TV ads. The adverse is reported anecdotally of Halter, where the more people that meet him personally walk away saying things like: ‘He just rubs me the wrong way,' ‘He sure has a bad case of the short man's syndrome,' or ‘I can't put my finger on it, but I just don't like him.' In a state like Arkansas, that really matters.”?Personality does matter, but so do perception, and right now a lot of voters see Lincoln as too negative.

Her genial personality hasn't counteracted those perceptions.

When it comes to reaching out to voters, both candidates have made use of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. YouTube has really changed the political ad game, giving each candidate tons of free media through blogs and new websites and it's also allowed candidates to reach younger audiences that don't watch the local news. Social media allow candidates to respond instantly to attacks or issue statements directly to “followers” or “friends.”

The political consultant the Times spoke with said these new tools are changing the political communications game, but in a small state like Arkansas, nothing beats old-fashioned politicking.

“While communication via Twitter, Facebook, etc., is cheap, TV still rules the day, as Arkansas is still a rural state and not as electronically ‘plugged in' as other states. At the end of the day it will be the raw number of identified voters that each campaign talks to and gets to the polls that will make the campaign successful.”

And then, of course, there's the D.C. factor — D.C. Morrison that is.

Morrison, the Democratic challenger who called the health care reform bill a “jobs killer” and said that man-made global warming was a “hoax,” has been polling around 10 percent which would make it possible that neither Halter nor Lincoln would top the 50 percent mark necessary to avoid a runoff. Halter has been showing signs of life in polls of late, closing the gap with Lincoln.

The big question might be which candidate is best suited to beat the Republican nominee? On the national level that's what the race is about — not card check, the public option or campaign finance reform. For Democrats, it's about keeping that seat. Meanwhile, a runoff, and the continuation of hostilities, might only help Republicans in the general election.


‘No Bailouts' is the new ‘Protect Marriage'

The Republican primary for the US Senate seat currently held by Sen. Blanche Lincoln has often been lost in the hubbub and national attention directed toward the primary on the Democratic side. What was at first an almost comically staggering number of candidates, eight to be exact, has been unofficially whittled down to two: Rep. John Boozman, the perceived front runner, and state Sen. Gilbert Baker. Jim Holt, who polled 44 percent of the vote against Lincoln six years ago, is something of an X factor.

Boozman has showed a considerable lead over the rest of the pack in recent polls, but the number of candidates in the race works in favor of the need for a runoff. Baker is pinning his hopes on just such an outcome and trying to close the gap between him and Boozman by capitalizing on voters' perceived rage toward big bailouts. Baker has been dragging around an old tarp to campaign events, asking voters to sign it to express their distaste for the Troubled Asset Relief Program passed by Congress earlier this year with Boozman's support.

All of Baker's campaign signs and logos (including his Twitter avatar) now include a bright yellow box containing the phrase “No Bailouts.” Politically it's brilliant: Take a statement that no one can really oppose, about an issue that not many fully understand, and run with it. “No Bailouts” just has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Baker has been hammering Boozman for his vote for TARP — a vote that, to his credit, Boozman staunchly defends as a necessary evil. Adding the “No Bailouts” tag to campaign signs is taking a page out of the Jim Holt playbook. Holt added the slogan “Protect Marriage” to his Senate campaign materials in 2004 and was able to capture a significant percentage of the vote. It's a tactic Baker is trying to replicate, a single identifier based on a belief that it resonates with Republican voters.

Holt has been noticeably absent so far in this race, especially when it comes to media. Television audiences have seen little of him while Baker and Boozman have both released ads much discussed in political circles — Boozman, touting his Christian upbringing; Baker, standing on a soap box and shouting “It's our time now!” to a small crowd assembled in a field. One of Baker's strengths is his warm personality. Attempting to look like a mad-as-hell rabble-rouser to capitalize on voter anger is seen as a genius stroke by his campaign, but some viewers have found it jarring.

Holt's fund-raising efforts have not been as fruitful as expected and his most recent stunt — dressing up an old ambulance with flashing lights (which happens to be legally problematic) and labeling it the “Obamacare Repeal Unit” — makes his candidacy look like more of a gimmick than a serious run for office.

Almost every poll available has any Republican, even the unknowns, beating any Democrat. Still, come November, it's hard to imagine someone like Curtis Coleman beating Blanche Lincoln, should he be a miracle upset winner in the Republican primary. Most are convinced, though, that being an incumbent is not a good thing this year. That might work out well for Halter, but not Lincoln. Even Boozman, though seeking a new office, is effectively an incumbent as a long-time Washington insider.

The other Republican candidates, in addition to Boozman, Baker, Holt and Coleman, have achieved little name recognition, other than state Sen. Kim Hendren, who's ginned some colorful quotes and apologies for same. They are Randy Alexander, Fred Raney and Conrad Reynolds.

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