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Ark. Sen. Lincoln Faces Serious Primary Challenge
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Ark. Sen. Lincoln Faces Serious Primary Challenge

Ark. Sen. Lincoln Faces Serious Primary Challenge

Ark. Sen. Lincoln Faces Serious Primary Challenge
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In Arkansas, Democrats are battling among themselves in Tuesday's Senate primary. Two-term incumbent Blanche Lincoln, a centrist, is facing a strong challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who is being supported by progressive groups and the unions.

LYNN NEARY, host:

If it's the Republican establishment that's being tied in knots in Kentucky, it's the Democrats who are battling among themselves in Arkansas. Two-term incumbent Blanche Lincoln, a centrist, is facing a strong challenge in tomorrow's primary from Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, who's being supported by progressive groups and the unions.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story.

(Soundbite of music)

WADE GOODWYN: On the banks of the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock is a restaurant and bar called Sticky Fingers - the name a predictor of diners' fate. On the narrow sidewalk in front, a gauntlet of Bill Halter supporters welcome their conquering hero fresh from a televised debate with Senator Blanche Lincoln and businessman D.C. Morrison.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Unidentified Group: Go, Bill go. Go, Bill go. Go, Bill go.

Lieutenant Governor BILL HALTER (Democrat, Arkansas): I thank you much.

Unidentified Woman: I enjoyed it. You did a great job.

Lt. Gov. HALTER: Hello. Hello. Thank you.

GOODWYN: Americans always give Congress poor marks. But polls show dissatisfaction with incumbents on both sides of the aisle is daunting - that is, if you're an incumbent. If you're the challenger and you're a smart politician like Bill Halter, you ride that wave of discontent like surfer Laird Hamilton.

Lt. Gov. HALTER: People are really wanting a change from what they have in Washington. I'm hearing that over and over again. And, you know, we've been saying to folks, if you send the same people back to Washington, you're guaranteed to get the same result.

GOODWYN: Halter says the financial sector collapse and the ensuing deep recession have thrown Arkansas for a loop.

Lt. Gov. HALTER: It's about a bailout of Wall Street with no strings attached to the tune of $700 billion. It's about the fact that those bailed out banks then wound up lending less and paying their executives more. It's about unemployment being at a generational high. It's about home foreclosures being at a high. It's about the fact that the country, over the last 10 years, has accumulated an additional $7 trillion on our national debt.

GOODWYN: After Blanche Lincoln abandoned her support of the health care bill's public option and the Employee Free Choice Act, progressive Democrats and trade unions decided they'd seen enough. Bill Halter's populist message and millions of dollars in union support have brought him to within single digits of Lincoln in the polls.

(Soundbite of kissing)

Unidentified Woman: I put lipstick on both sides.

GOODWYN: If Bill Halter's post-debate rally is blue-collar union and African-American supporters at Sticky Fingers, Blanche Lincoln's post-debate rally is in the old Supreme Court chambers at the state capital with World War II veterans and high-ranking Army brass, like retired four star General Wesley Clark.

General WESLEY CLARK (U.S. Army, Retired): Senator Lincoln, your election is a priority for us in Arkansas, because you're standing up for the little person. We appreciate you, and we want you as our third-term United States senator. Senator Blanche Lincoln.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): Thank you.

GOODWYN: Lincoln blames her having a well-funded primary opponent on left-wing, out-of-state unions and says she stands courageously in the middle.

Sen. LINCOLN: Could it be so unusual that somebody actually legislates based on what their constituency is about and what's right? I mean, just because I'm not 100 percent with the unions and I'm not 100 percent with the chamber of commerce, is that reason enough to distort my record and come at me with $4 million worth of negative advertising?

GOODWYN: Lincoln surprised and infuriated the banking industry by offering legislation last month that would force financial institutions to give up derivatives trading if they wanted to be a traditional bank. In spite of the Wall Street implosion, that proposal is considered too radical a reform to survive Congress.

Janine Parry is a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. Parry says that the traditional wisdom that having a primary opponent weakens an incumbent may not be true in this race.

Professor JANINE PARRY (Political Science, University of Arkansas): I think in a perverse way, Halter's challenge has worked to her advantage as she positions herself for a general. He has blocked the efforts of Republicans to paint her as a leftist, right, so she got to shore up her moderate credentials right away. In addition, without his challenge, most analysts, I think, agree, she would not have moved so far to the left on a single issue: financial reform, right, the regulation of this derivatives market. And that looks like it's going to play well in the primary and the general for her.

GOODWYN: There is a third candidate on the Democratic ballot: a conservative businessman with the inconvenient name D.C. Morrison. Morrison is only polling in the single digits, but that may be enough to keep Lincoln from getting the 50 percent of the vote in tomorrow's primary. If she doesn't, that will mean Lincoln and Halter will have a runoff June 8th.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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