Lincoln-Halter Debates In Ark. Were No Lincoln-Douglas; Both Visit TOTN Wed.

Bumpers and Fulbright buttons

hide captionThe last time an Arkansas senator was defeated in a primary was in 1974, when Dem Gov. Dale Bumpers (top) knocked off Sen. J.William Fulbright.

By many accounts, the two debates held this weekend between Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln and her Democratic primary challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, were not game-changers.  If a new poll were out, Lincoln would probably still be up.

One thing was clear:  neither expressed happiness with the tone of the campaign.

According to an account by 40/29TV.com, a joint effort by Arkansas TV stations, one "big talking point" in the Friday night debate was the negative ads the two have launched against each other.

Lincoln said she's been "unfairly singled out" by out-of-state special interest groups that have launched TV attack ads against her.  Halter said he too has been the object of negative ads, and he challenged her to remove them.  He calls her "Bailout Blanche" because of her 2008 vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP); she calls him "Dollar Bill" because he once served on the board of a software company that outsourced jobs to India.

And so it went.  Lincoln-Douglas, it was not.

But should Lincoln be coasting to victory for the May 18 primary? 

Not according to Arkansas' The Tolbert Report.  In fact, they have moved the primary from "Leans Lincoln" to "Toss Up."

One reason is the rise of a third Democrat in the race, businessman D.C. Morrison, who is getting close to ten percent in the polls.  If that's the case, then the race could go to a June runoff and, according to Tolbert, giving Halter more time to get his message out against the two-term Senate incumbent.

But Tolbert liked what he saw of Halter in the debate:

If Halter continues to have as good a performance over these last three weeks as he has had this past week, it is quite possible he will catch her by May 18.

The issue in advance of the May 18 primary is, essentially, which candidate is the real Democrat?  That's what got Halter in the race to begin with.  Politico's David Catanese has a good take on it:

It’s a party fault line that was exposed by the fierce battle over the public option in health care reform and over the Employee Free Choice Act, one of organized labor’s top priorities.

Lincoln opposed both measures. Halter, as a result, has been the beneficiary of support and millions of dollars in financial backing from the big labor unions and national liberal groups like MoveOn.org.

What has gotten progressives upset about Lincoln is not that she is a conservative — although that term has been thrown at her — but that she is cautious.  Any Democrat running for re-election in a state that gave Barack Obama just 39 percent of the vote is presumably in a tough race, and casting party-line votes may not be the way to survive.  As it is, she remains the most vulnerable Democratic senator up in 2010.

But while Republicans are licking their chops in anticipation of picking up the seat in November, right now the action is in the primaries, and that's what Lincoln is focusing on.  Despite the protestations from the left, she has managed to hold onto a lead, mostly thanks to the support from the party establishment and the business community. 

And that's always been Blanche Lincoln, writes Arkansas News columnist John Brummett, who knows more about Arkansas politics than anyone on the planet:

That’s been the essence and mantra of Lincoln’s success over two decades in Arkansas politics. She’s a middle-of-the-roader who gets the business and farm vote while hanging on to traditional Democratic constituents such as African-Americans.

Both Lincoln and Halter are our special guests in Wednesday's (tomorrow's) Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

Eight Republicans are also seeking their party's nomination.  The favorite is Rep. John Boozman — whose late brother lost to Lincoln in 1998 — followed by state Sen. Gilbert Baker.

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