Columns » Warwick Sabin

Get in the game

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My brother and I went to the Razorbacks game last Saturday. When we took our seats, he told me that the match-up was a no-win situation for Head Coach Houston Nutt.

If the Hogs lost, Nutt would probably lose his job. If they won but the score was close, a lot of people would think Nutt should lose his job. And if Arkansas won in a blowout — who cares? They were only playing Louisiana-Monroe.

Welcome to the world of Mike Beebe.

The attorney general almost surely will face Bill Halter in the Democratic primary for governor. Although Halter only has a week-old exploratory committee, on Monday he announced that he already has raised $500,000, which is enough money to fund a full-fledged campaign.

This puts Beebe in a classic political dilemma. Does he acknowledge and answer the attacks that are sure to come from Halter, thereby lending attention and credibility to the upstart challenger? Or does he ignore them, playing the bemused and indifferent frontrunner but risking a death by a thousand cuts?

So far Beebe has gone with the second strategy, judging from the statement delivered by his campaign manager, Chris Masingill.

“The first thing is that General Beebe is going to stay focused on doing his job as attorney general,” Masingill said. “He has the luxury of running on a record of results. . . . We welcome Mr. Halter back to Arkansas and wish him well as he decides if he will be a candidate for governor and as he reacquaints himself with this great state and the hard working people who live here.”

No doubt Beebe has a plan. It’s probably been sitting on his desk for a while, and he’ll be damned if anyone is going to make him deviate from it now.

He was probably going to stay above the fray, continuing his work as a consumer protector while resisting his Republican opponent’s attempts to draw him into the line of fire. He would project statesmanship, saving his considerable financial war chest until it was absolutely necessary to actually campaign — preferably after the primary. And even then he would run positive advertisements emphasizing his knowledge and experience, betting that his cultivation of Republican business interests combined with the support of traditional Democratic constituencies would provide a comfortable margin of victory.

That’s a nice strategy — for a well-known incumbent. But Beebe is not well known, he is not an incumbent and he has only held statewide office for 2-1/2 years. He feels like a well-known incumbent, because he served in the state Senate for 20 years and has been the presumed Democratic gubernatorial nominee for a while. Still, most Arkansans probably don’t have a good sense of who Beebe is.

This is exactly why Asa Hutchinson’s recent attacks have been so effective. Beebe thinks he is cementing his reputation as a consumer advocate in the attorney general’s office, but Hutchinson is saying Beebe is in the pocket of big business and has not effectively protected us from utility rate hikes. Basically Hutchinson is neutralizing one of Beebe’s expected strengths before Beebe has a chance to define himself to voters.

It may seem noble to avoid the campaign and be attorney general as long as possible, but it is actually weak and disingenuous. It is disingenuous because Beebe barnstormed the state and declared his candidacy for governor back in June. He didn’t say, “I’m running for governor, see you in 11 months,” but we have barely heard from his campaign since.

And it is weak because he is not aggressively engaging in the most pivotal endeavor of his life. He is not demonstrating the humility that characterizes someone who needs to introduce himself to an electorate and work hard for their votes. Considering he has never been in a contested race, that does not inspire confidence.

Such doubts about Beebe’s will and ability explain why Halter felt there was still an opening in the race. Halter will be a strong candidate, combining Rhodes Scholar smarts with experience in business and the Clinton administration. His main weakness is that he has been out of state for a long time, but he is an effective communicator who will likely force Beebe to answer him.

When that happens, Beebe will have to talk about what he wants to do as governor and why he thinks he is best qualified for the job. If he can beat Halter, he will be better known in the state and better prepared for the general election.

If he can’t, he will be remembered as the Jack Crowe of Arkansas politics.


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