HOT SPRINGS — The straw vote was the third biggest story of the state Republican Party's gathering at the Arlington Hotel here Saturday.
State Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway, the most established and formidable all-round politician in the current seven-man field of GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate, held serve barely. He won the straw vote, 35-33, over Curtis Coleman.
The contest would have mattered only if some candidate other than Baker had won and thereby laid probably dubious claim to some probably illusory credibility or momentum.
The second-biggest story was a blast from the past from Ed Bethune. He's the lawyer from Searcy who got elected to Congress from Central Arkansas in 1978, when Republicans weren't quite so cool. He held the seat until he dared to challenge David Pryor for the Senate in 1984. He distinguished himself as a worthy champion of this school of thought: If you cut everybody's taxes, then the economy will become paradise.
Bethune fell in with Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay and other mean-streak Republicans. After Pryor retired him in electoral politics, he settled in Washington as a well-wired lobbyist who had a private passageway to the House Republican leadership. Three years ago he retired from the wars.
But the former Marine and ex-FBI agent, now north of 70, clearly misses mixing it up. He told state Republican chairman Doyle Webb he wouldn't mind coming back to the state and giving a stem-winder or two.
So Webb took him up on it, and, in turn, Bethune delivered the red meat, bringing the few hundred Republicans to their feet three times Saturday morning.
This was what he said:
• It's a disgrace when the Chinese tell us to watch our spending and it's an abomination when the president of the United States bows to the Japanese.
• Our founding fathers, with whom he presented an imagined conversation, are surely dismayed that we have become a nation not of limited government as they intended, but of activist and deficit-spending government.
• It's almost unbelievable that we are having a serious fight over whether we stay capitalist and free or go socialist and inevitably tyrannical.
• Everything in modern politics is a “sideshow” except how we get the debt down and how we grow economically.
He said we need a civil dialogue about this holy war for the soul of our country. So I asked him afterward whether it was civil to call President Obama and the Democrats socialists. He said that of course it was.
He said one is entitled to believe policies to be socialist and to say so.
He said that Obama and the Democrats are obliged in the face of that either to admit to socialism and defend it or explain why the assessment is inaccurate. Nothing could be more civil, he said.
I agreed with approximately none of Bethune's speech. Like any bold partisan address, it played better live to the grandstand than it held up to study after. But I rather admired the partisan punch packed in nearly every syllable of it.
Finally, the big story: The real Republican race for the U.S. Senate was not represented in the seven-candidate field for the straw vote. Over the next few days the field effectively will be pared to three, most likely, with Baker pitted against two new entrants. One is Jim Holt of Springdale and the other Stanley Reed of Marianna.
Baker benefits as an extreme conservative, but one mitigated by establishment credentials through a pragmatic leadership role in the state Senate.
Holt will erode that support among extreme conservatives. Reed, a Democratic convert, will erode that support in the establishment through his tenures as chairman of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees and as president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau.
So I'm looking for a Baker-Holt-Reed battle. And I'm thinking all three ought to be glad Ed Bethune doesn't want to run.