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Playing abortion as winner-take-all 

We see evidence of a concerted effort by Arkansas Republicans. It comes from their candidates and the party leadership and these new Internet blogs that do the GOP's faithful bidding. That concerted effort is to try to keep Democrats from making a cultural connection to prevailing conservative Arkansas values by expressing personal opposition to abortion while, at the same time, these Democrats avoid a firm policy position against the legal right to it.

Evidently there's been new research. It must show that Arkansawyers prefer conservatism on social issues. More to the point, since we knew that already: It must show that the state's voters prominently define social conservatism by abortion. Republicans apparently have put their heads together and committed to try not to let another Mark Pryor happen. By that I mean the making of a values connection among rural Arkansas conservatives by a Democratic candidate expressing his personal angst over abortion -- his implied opposition -- even as he declines to say Roe v. Wade needs to be overturned.

Pryor made that rural values connection in 2002 -- aided by his showy religion and gun rights support -- even as out-of-state money flowed to his campaign from pro-choice organizations deeming his unseating of Tim Hutchinson vital. It's called having it both ways, and the best politicians tend to be those who accomplish it. So, when conservative Republican Asa Hutchinson and pragmatic Democrat Mike Beebe met a few Saturdays ago before newspaper editors in Pine Bluff for their first real set-to of the general election gubernatorial campaign, and as I expected Hutchinson to hammer rural school issues, Hutchinson got around to rural schools only after abortion.

He said Beebe was trying to pass himself off a pro-life by saying he personally opposed abortion and favored restrictions to the right to it when, in fact, when you got right down to it, he wasn't really opposed. Then one day I wrote that Dustin McDaniel, the attorney general candidate, embodied a rural-focused Democratic strategy encompassing cultural conservatism. I got widely ridiculed by the Republican spin apparatus for this mere suggestion that one could be pro-choice, as McDaniel was, and culturally conservative at the same time. Then I described Paul Suskie's abortion position as a squishy pro-lifeness because he says Roe v. Wade likely won't be overturned and that even if it were, he'd go along with exemptions for the health, not only the life, of the mother.

Clint Reed, the state Republican executive director, jumped in with semi-exuberance to ask me what the difference was between Suskie's position and Beebe's. Not a great deal, it seemed. So, Beebe wasn't really pro-life either, was he? Huh? Huh? I never said he was. The difference seems to come down to this: I believe a politician can have a Pryor-like nuanced position on abortion -- opposing it personally and generally but ultimately not wanting to undo Roe v. Wade -- and still be a sufficient cultural conservative to connect widely with Arkansas voters.

Republicans think the contrary, or certainly hope the contrary. So, then, let me tell you about someone else who is not really pro-life, ultimately and unequivocally and thoroughly. That'd be Asa Hutchinson. In that Pine Bluff semi-debate before editors, as Hutchinson pestered Beebe over the fullness and legitimacy of his pro-life pronouncements, I asked Hutchinson a simple question. Would he as governor seek to have Arkansas join South Dakota in passing an outright repeal of the right to abortion to defy Roe v. Wade and dare the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the law?

Asa hesitated, evaded and said, eventually, no. If we're going to play abortion as an all-or-nothing game, then lets really play it.

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