Columns » Warwick Sabin

Now they're talking

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Bill Halter entered the governor’s race last week, and it’s a good thing.

In one day there was substantive clarification of where the Democratic candidates stand on some of the issues. Halter announced his campaign on Saturday morning and straightforwardly outlined an initial platform: he wants a statewide lottery to benefit education; he agrees with a proposed ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage; he would outlaw usurious payday lending; he is for banning campaign contributions from, and travel financed by, lobbyists and political action committees.

Two hours later, Mike Beebe responded to those ideas: I could support that; I support the concept; I tried to do that when I was in the legislature; not so much.

Regardless of where you come out on each point, in one morning the race took a measurable shape it did not have in the six months since Beebe declared his candidacy.

Before Saturday, Beebe and Asa Hutchinson basically agreed on everything and spoke mainly in broad themes. The only unequivocal positions both men espoused were easy ones, and when it came to offering actual policy prescriptions, they each came down on the same side of proposals like exempting manufacturers from the sales tax on utility costs. You could just feel the excitement.

These dovetailing messages and priorities played right into the hands of Hutchinson, who wants everyone to believe there is little difference between him and Beebe. Hutchinson’s handlers respond to every poll by saying, “We have always said it will be a close race,” precisely because it’s not supposed to be. A well-financed longtime Democratic office-holder in a state still dominated by the Democratic Party should have no problem dispatching a recently-returned, ultra-conservative Republican who played key roles in a mismanaged federal agency and an impeachment effort against the state’s favorite son.

Beebe might have gotten around to drawing distinctions. But winning a Democratic primary by appealing to Democratic voters is a more efficient way of re-establishing his natural advantage over Hutchinson. Although Beebe said, “The big downside [of a primary] is it’s more expensive,” he should view it as money well spent, because he is shoring up his base, increasing his media exposure and removing the stigma of never having won a contested campaign.

Not that we should automatically assume that Beebe will have an easy primary victory, even though Halter definitely has an uphill climb.

“If you’re talking about the proposition can someone not well known or not known as well win the governor’s race, well obviously I showed in 1970 that you could,” Dale Bumpers told me when I asked him about the comparison Halter would like to make. “But there were very different circumstances. I could not have done that if there were not eight people in the primary. I only got 21 percent of the vote, but it was enough to get me into a runoff against Orval Faubus, who got at least twice that much.”

I would add that Bumpers famously laid the groundwork for his campaign by spending over a year begging to speak to as many civic clubs around the state as he could. Also, television was a new factor in Arkansas politics, and Bumpers used it well.

There was one more important element to Bumpers’ success.

“You have to relate to people in a meaningful, heartfelt way,” he said. “If you can’t do that, you have no business being in the profession. You have to relate or you’re not going to win.”

That’s an area where Halter needs to improve. He wasn’t visibly out among the people much as he decided whether to run, and his announcement speech — while laudably specific on policy — lacked empathy and rhetorical flourish. Ideas are important, but people also vote for who they like. Somewhere in between Beebe’s warm, genial imprecision and Halter’s intense, businesslike clarity is a winning candidate for governor.

That is what is so great about competition. It motivates, improves and fine-tunes one’s performance. The curious thing about those who resent Halter’s entrance is they simultaneously say he has no chance to win. What’s the problem, then? Even the greatest team in any sport isn’t given a free pass to the championship game. Beyond the sports analogies, there is also the small matter of this being a democracy.

If Beebe can’t beat Halter, he doesn’t deserve to be the Democratic nominee. If he does beat Halter, he’ll be better for it.

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