Columns » John Brummett

Regarding Asa and Beebe

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I found myself engaged in vigorous and friendly conversation at lunch the other day with a gaggle of pleasant Republicans and a couple of similarly nice Democrats.

That was how the partisan affiliations fell out at an event for which somebody had actually paid hard American currency.

The outlay of funds had taken place some months ago at an auction to raise money for the symphony orchestra in Conway. The item purchased was the opportunity to dine with me, state Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway and Lu Hardin, the president of the University of Central Arkansas.

This was months ago. I had long since assumed that the winner had made a simple donation and that no actual meal need ever take place. But Baker, the state Republican chairman, and Hardin, a mid-life Republican convert, are men of their word. They gathered me, the winning bidder and the winner's guests for pork tenderloin and iced tea at the UCA presidential home.

It came to pass that I was asked what I thought about the governor's race, specifically whether I agreed that if the Mike Beebe-Asa Hutchinson battle were put on the ballot today, Beebe would take it by four to six percentage points.

Let me be clear: It wasn't state GOP chairman Baker who asked the question or handicapped the race that way, a point to which I will momentarily return.

I said that I did in fact see it just that way, and that I agreed with prevailing wisdom that the race is Beebe's to lose because he will be better funded and the Democrats are uncommonly motivated and unified.

That put Baker on the spot. But he handled the moment so well that I am obliged to relate his response.

He said, and I'm paraphrasing, that this developing conventional wisdom that Beebe is ahead is illusory.

He said the notion was almost entirely a function of insiders who tend to be more impressed with campaign treasuries and special interest alliances than connected with real people.

He said the plain fact was that eight of 10 Arkansawyers weren't yet paying the least attention to the race and that it might well be that if we walked outside and asked the first person we saw who Mike Beebe was, that person very well might not know.

He said the race was wholly yet to be run, and that Hutchinson's extensive government resume and his greater devotion to policy positions and to standing up for basic Arkansas values, such as the preservation of rural students against onerous bus rides, would, in due time, render these insider notions distant memories.

This was good spin, arguably true and mitigated only by two factors.

One is that Arkansas governor's races aren't typically decided by issues, but as cults of personality and contests thereof. The more I hear that traditional Democratic constituents are fired up and that Beebe is well-received wherever he goes, and especially in rural Arkansas, the greater I judge Hutchinson's challenge.

The other is that if any vote-turning issue were actually to arise this fall, it would almost have to be immigration. And I can't quite see how that works to Hutchinson's benefit, since he is vulnerable, whether fairly on unfairly, to charges he didn't do his job well as deputy secretary for border enforcement in the federal Homeland Security Department.

Beyond that, he has insisted to his great credit on taking a more moderate, Bush-like stand on immigration than that of, say, his running mate, Jim Holt.

It will be difficult to galvanize a campaign around an emotional issue by insisting on fairness, reason and nuance.

It is true that Hutchinson is offering a more substantive campaign than Beebe. That's commendable. But it's also true that he's having to rely on substance in a race that may not be decided on that basis, and is doing so because he's losing the typically more decisive contests of money and cult of personality.

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