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Ross wins debate, but ... 

The Arkansas Press Association had a one-hour gubernatorial debate at its convention in Hot Springs last week.

I was among a tiny crowd that joined the show on-line. A contingent of representatives of the incredibly shrinking dead-tree press observed, but major public awareness was pretty well limited to Saturday readership (lake, anyone?) of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Too bad, because I thought Mike Ross was a clear winner over Republican Asa Hutchinson.

Ross trails the better-known Hutchinson in the polls and so he was understandably aggressive. He delivered a strong populist message of the sort that used to be a sure winner in Arkansas.

He wants no child to be denied a pre-K education because of income or ZIP code. He supports a ballot measure to increase the state's rock bottom minimum wage to a barely passable $8.50 an hour by 2017. He attacked Asa Hutchinson's income tax cut plan because it omits a dime of benefits for the 40 percent of workers at the bottom end of the income scale. He vigorously endorsed the private option expansion of Medicaid, which is giving insurance coverage to 200,000 previously uninsured Arkansans. He said flatly that he opposed an expansion of the state lottery into keno games.

Asa dodged all this. (The legislature should raise the minimum wage, not voters? Really? The Republican legislature? As if.) He described Ross as a flip-flopper on health care, but Ross' support of the Republican-crafted private option couldn't have been more unequivocal.

Ross grabbed the initiative by turning a meaningless same-sex marriage question to his simple, common-touch agenda. Hutchinson dished up a front-runner's word salad.

You might part with Ross on issues, but he offered specifics. Hutchinson didn't.

Problem: They were not alone. They were joined by Josh Drake of the Green Party and Frank Gilbert of the Libertarian Party. In often ingratiating ways, they described themselves as alternatives to same old grid-locked major parties. I've always thought the formula dictated that Drake would siphon votes from Ross and Gilbert from Hutchinson. But they both might have some appeal. Gilbert is anti-Obamacare through and through, sure to be a Tea Party fave. But gay marriage? OK by him. Legal marijuana, too.

Drake talked about progressive tax reform and environmental protection (the state's imperiled water supply, particularly.) Drake nailed Hutchinson, who stepped on his waffling Buffalo River hog farming answer by saying he wanted Arkansas to emulate Louisiana by streamlining its regulatory process. Drake — and I — have been to Louisiana. You can smell streamlined deregulation there. It doesn't smell like Chanel.

Drake and Gilbert were thoughtful and fearless. They can't win given money and reflexive major party preferences. And they won't be invited to all debates. Wider exposure would give them more votes. They may get enough as it is to be decisive. Think Ralph Nader and Florida in 2000.

OTHER DEBATES: Democrat Nate Steel, in grasp of detail and presentation, appeared more qualified than Republican Leslie Rutledge to be attorney general. But apart from neatly putting down her major campaign theme — he said a promise to sue the feds whenever possible overlooks more important duties of the attorney general — he agreed with her more than he disagreed.

In the lieutenant governor's race, Democrat John Burkhalter said he was a businessman running against a political hack, Tim Griffin. True enough. Griffin, the Karl Rove campaign hit man and Florida vote suppressor and recent congressman, countered that the political hack was — non sequitur alert — Mike Ross. The third-party candidate in that race, Christopher Olson, indicated the office wasn't necessary in the first place.

True that.

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