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Wake me when it's over 

Searching for excitement in the race for governor.

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Scandal, theatrics and petty attacks have been staples of Arkansas governor’s races for as long as anyone can remember. Orval Faubus won the 1964 election by accusing Winthrop Rockefeller of desecrating a rural cemetery. In 1980, Frank White eked out a surprising victory with his populist refrain of Cubans and car tags. And six years later, Bill Clinton pre-empted another White assault by rushing to a drug clinic one morning to offer up his urine.

What episodes like that lack in substance they make up for by capturing the attention of voters and giving them something they can understand and talk about. They’re what the campaigns are remembered for long after other issues have faded from memory.

But with a month to go before Election Day, the 2006 gubernatorial race remains thick with policy debate and thin on the public consciousness — not at all what was expected by those eagerly anticipating the first open-seat governor’s election since 1978.

“We’ve got two high-quality candidates with good public service records and good personal character records,” said Lori Klein, an instructor of political science at Harding University. “There has not been a bad negative tone developed between the two candidates yet. Which, of course, means no one is paying attention.”

Yet this isn’t necessarily a case of voters tuning out a positive, issue-oriented campaign. Rather, the candidates and the issues themselves are bland, and distinctions are being drawn in shades of gray, instead of black and white.

Even the candidates admit that most people think their campaigns are boring.

“We’ve taken clear positions on issues, whether it’s health care or whether it’s taxes or the methamphetamine problem,” said the Republican nominee, Asa Hutchinson. “I think people interpret that as a boring race. It’s a boring race unless you’re slinging mud somewhere.”

It’s not that mud isn’t being slung. It’s just that the candidates themselves aren’t slinging it.

There has been a proliferation of internet blogs during this election cycle — mostly anonymous and on the Republican side — devoted to attacking Arkansas political candidates.

In one example, a conservative blog hurls an accusation against the Democratic candidate, Mike Beebe, that hasn’t been made by Hutchinson: “Beebe talks about — SURPRISE! — how he grew up poor. Funny … Beebe doesn’t mention that he didn’t really grow up in Arkansas. Motor City Mike spent more time in Dee-troit than he did in Arkansas in his formative years. It’s true. Look it up.” [Beebe told the Arkansas Times in a May 12, 2005 cover story that while he was born in Arkansas, he spent his childhood in Detroit and other cities before permanently returning to the state in ninth grade.]

More significantly, a 527 organization called the Coalition for Arkansas’ Future is running television commercials criticizing Beebe’s legislative votes on taxes and challenging his position on property rights. While 527 groups are not supposed to coordinate with campaign committees or expressly advocate for the election or defeat of particular candidates, the Coalition for Arkansas’ Future has exclusively targeted Democrats with its negative ads and materials.

Even though Beebe is on the receiving end of most of the third-party attacks (the Democrats don’t have an equivalent 527 organization in Arkansas), he hasn’t suffered much. He leads in every poll and holds a significant financial edge. In fact, the constant vilifications of both candidates by surrogates seem to amount to little more than background noise and have done little to shape the opinions of the electorate.

“It’s been a weird race in that a lot more of the give-and-take has been more by operatives rather than the candidates themselves,” said Jay Barth, a politics professor at Hendrix College and a member of the Democratic Party state committee. “We’ve seen a transition in Arkansas politics to somewhat depersonalize the politics, and we’re seeing that here. Clearly it’s to Beebe’s advantage because when you have such a money advantage, in what is primarily a paid-media game, the media covers most closely statements made by the candidates themselves. For most of this year, the candidates were almost minor actors in their own campaigns instead of front and center in their events and statements.”

The expectation, then, is that Hutchinson is going to ratchet up his attacks on Beebe during the final weeks of the campaign, since it is incumbent upon him to change the status quo. Recent opinion polls show Hutchinson trailing Beebe by as much as 15 and 18 points, and the latest financial reports indicate that Beebe has raised almost twice as much money.

Beebe has used that money to broadcast a series of feel-good television ads highlighting his background (“I grew up in a tar paper shack”), his support of gun rights and property rights, and his commitment to education.

Hutchinson, though he initially aired similar spots, has become somewhat more aggressive in recent weeks, but only subtly, abstractly and indirectly. For instance, he didn’t even mention Beebe’s name when he softly said in a television commercial, “Can you imagine putting our children on a bus for over three hours a day? I sure can’t. But that’s what’s happening when we close local schools. My opponent helped create this problem. I want to fix it.”

And in a one-on-one exchange during an Oct. 2 candidate forum at Philander Smith College, Hutchinson’s most notable offensive was not whether to eliminate the grocery tax — a goal both he and Beebe share — but merely how quickly to do it.

Beebe: I proposed last January that we phase out and eliminate … the sales tax on groceries. I’m committed to that and I think we can do it. We’ll know how fast we can phase that out and we’ll know how quickly we can get that done when we’ve got a couple of other factors in place, including the fall revenue forecast and including what the adequacy study reflects and what the legislature ultimately says has to be increased in spending when it comes to public education.

Hutchinson: It is important that we provide more tax relief. And it’s a difference between myself and my opponent. He has talked about on television it is time to eliminate the grocery tax. Well, that to me says now let’s do it. But yet, when you read the fine print you find out that you’re not going to end it now, you’re going to phase it out over time if revenues allow. And we’ve been around in politics a long time — that means it could be an empty promise. My pledge is that we can, with the surplus that we have, and consistent with our needs in education, eliminate that grocery tax now.

Is that enough to pull off an upset? Can a small policy gradation trigger a popular groundswell?

“What we’ve had is Hutchinson going around and trying to rub sticks and stones together to ignite a spark, something that will generate some interest and put Beebe on the defensive or back him into a corner in some way,” said University of Arkansas political science professor Hoyt Purvis. “He’s tried various things, including the rural schools and the grocery tax and various things that Beebe has said and not said. But it doesn’t appear to the broader public that any of those have caught fire up to this point. He’s been moving around to various issues to find something that will stick, but I don’t think it has happened yet.”

Among the only unused ammunition remaining for Hutchinson are personal attacks of the kind seen regularly on the Republican-leaning blogs, but he seems unwilling to move in that direction. Asked if Beebe had made any mistakes during the campaign so far, Hutchinson said, “I think his mistakes have been on policy issues.”

The obsession with policy in this race reflects both the resumes and the personalities of the candidates.

Beebe was elected state attorney general in 2002 after serving 20 years in the state senate, where he ascended to the highest leadership positions and made a name for himself as an expert in state government. “He became a known expert in the Senate for a variety of issues,” said Bill Goodman, the state Senate chief of staff who previously spent 34 years with the Bureau of Legislative Research.

Similarly, Hutchinson has a long record of public service and political activity, beginning in 1982 when he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. He lost to Dale Bumpers in the 1986 U.S. Senate race, but later became the chairman of the state Republican Party before winning the U.S. House seat his brother, Tim, vacated in 1996. Shortly after President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he appointed Hutchinson to run the Drug Enforcement Administration, and when that agency was absorbed into the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, Hutchinson was named the undersecretary for border and transportation security. He remained in that position until 2005, when he resigned to return to Arkansas to run for governor.

In addition to their depth of experience, both men are known for their technocratic style. While that might make them prepared to run state government, it doesn’t necessarily translate into charisma on the campaign trail.

“They are not either known as dynamic or exciting personalities so much as they’re known as competent, experienced and knowledgeable about government and public affairs,” Purvis said. “So I think it is probably fair to say that neither of them would be thought of as charismatic-type candidates.”

Barth made a similar point. “We were used to electing governors and seeing gubernatorial campaigns where the candidates’ personalities were very strong in very different ways,” he said. “[Mike] Huckabee, Clinton, White, Bumpers, [David] Pryor were all folks with strong personalities. [Beebe and Hutchinson] don’t have strong personalities, and as a result, the people have faded and the issues have come into the forefront. But the issues are not as compelling, so it’s a weird election.”

Even weirder is that both of these experienced candidates answered the same way when asked separately to name the issue on which they could draw the biggest distinction with their opponent. They both said … experience.

“It goes back to experience,” Beebe said. “There is a big difference between Arkansas and Washington experience. It’s dealing with balancing budgets versus not having to balance budgets. Understanding our own issues on the state level is a major distinction in experience level.”

“The biggest distinction is experience and leadership,” Hutchinson said. “I certainly applaud leadership he gained, but when 29 percent of state revenues come from federal grants and programs and federal dollars, clearly the breadth of experience a governor can have at both state and federal level — that is a quantitative difference that voters can look at. I have experience at both levels.”

This is how they expect voters to choose between them?

It may be that context matters more than anything the candidates can say or do, anyway.

A multitude of factors are working against Hutchinson this year, beginning with the experience he touts. With Bush’s approval rating hovering around 40 percent in Arkansas, Hutchinson can’t emphasize his association with the president too closely, and a recent Bush visit to Arkansas was limited to a private fundraising event and a quick photo-op outside a Little Rock restaurant.

At the same time, Republicans nationwide are feeling the impact of congressional scandals, which may depress turnout among their normally reliable, but now disillusioned, supporters.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson has not been able to capitalize on Mike Huckabee, the 10-year incumbent governor who has been the state’s most successful Republican politician in modern times. Part of that may be attributable to Huckabee’s presidential ambitions, which have distracted his attention and frequently taken him out of Arkansas this year.

But there is also a longstanding and persistent rivalry between Huckabee and Hutchinson that, despite Huckabee’s public endorsement of his fellow Republican, denies Hutchinson the benefit of a fully energized party base. Huckabee himself acknowledged the problem at a recent campaign fundraiser, when he said a lot of people wonder whether he “really” supports Hutchinson.

“You don’t get the passing of the torch,” said Klein. “There was a clear endorsement, but I wonder if organizationally it has been as seamless a transition as it could have been if it had been a more consolidated party.”

One of Huckabee’s strengths was his ability to net a respectable level of support from black voters, cutting into a reliable Democratic base. Hutchinson is unlikely to match Huckabee in this regard, due to some personal and professional factors neatly summed up in a flyer distributed at the Oct. 2 event held at the historically black Philander Smith College: “WHAT A SHAME! Why use my tuition dollars to bring someone like Asa to my campus? Someone who: Attended the SEGREGATED Bob Jones University … Has the grade of ‘F’ by the NAACP because of his voting record on civil rights … Led the fight to impeach President Bill Clinton, a fellow Arkansan … Asa, you have the nerve to now step onto OUR campus and ask for OUR vote?”

On the other side of the political spectrum, campaign contributions show that a significant portion of the Republican-leaning business community decided early on to support Beebe, reflecting close relationships formed while Beebe was in the state Senate.

That leaves only one group in play for Hutchinson, beyond the Republican social conservatives who are his only dependable allies: white rural conservatives. And that explains why Hutchinson is trying to be more populist than Beebe on the grocery tax, property rights, immigration and rural schools. But Beebe has limited Hutchinson’s room to maneuver on those issues, in some cases countering demagoguery with more responsible rhetoric. Beebe’s for getting rid of the grocery tax, too — in keeping with the state budget. He’s for protecting property rights, too — but feels current law is adequate. He’s for combating illegal immigration, too — but doesn’t want to overburden state police with a federal responsibility. And he’s for protecting rural schools — as long as the education they provide complies with adequacy requirements.

In other words, on the key issues in their race, the only things Beebe and Hutchinson disagree about are shades of gray.

Which brings us back where we started.

“I’m not really sure, if you go back through the history of Arkansas governor’s races, you’re going to find too many times when public policy issues and sharp divisions between candidates was the determining factor in the outcome of the race,” Purvis said. “Governor’s races often have been influenced as much by personality, name recognition, previous public service, and sort of a connection with people and the public. In this campaign, obviously that is a factor, but it doesn’t seem to be working dramatically in either candidate’s favor.”

If Hutchinson is going to change the dynamic of the race, he may need to do something sensational, and among his only options is adopting a more personal, negative tone. That’s what Beebe expects, at least.

“There is no way for me to be able to speculate other than to say we’ve seen it get more negative in recent weeks,” Beebe said. “If that is any indication, we’ll probably be able to see more of that.”

For his part, Hutchinson said of his approach to the final weeks of the campaign, “I think you have to be careful not to overreact. We’re on track, we’re gaining, so we’re sticking with our game plan. I do think it is important to define differences that are becoming clear over the course of the campaign. That is important to show voters because they have to make a choice.”

“I do think he could throw a long ball on social issues,” Barth said of Hutchinson. “On abortion, gays and lesbians, on other social issues, to try to win it on turnout. … The question is: Is there any silver bullet issue? I don’t think there is. It may have to be something that could be perceived by the public as more personal attacks, but that is a crap shoot because it could very well backfire.”

Purvis said, “I think Hutchinson is going to have to hit hard and I think Beebe certainly has to be prepared. … I don’t know what Hutchinson is going to come up with, but he’s going to keep trying. He’s got to. There just aren’t issues the candidates have big divisions over. Maybe something is out there, but it hasn’t emerged yet.”

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