Columns » Warwick Sabin

The book of Mark

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With Christmas and the new year fast approaching, it’s safe to say we’ve seen everything Mike Beebe’s gubernatorial campaign is going to do in 2005.

It wasn’t much. He announced his candidacy with a June speech in which he encouraged us to “Believe in Arkansas.” Since then he has mainly concentrated on his official duties as attorney general, with occasional campaign visits to Democratic clubs, civic groups and trade associations. So far he has taken bold stands for economic development and against domestic violence.

As easy as it is to ridicule, Beebe’s strategy may be a winning one. He and his advisors clearly see no advantage in being aggressive at this stage. They probably feel that no one is paying attention besides political journalists and insiders, so his time is better spent raising money and solidifying support behind the scenes.

Also, Beebe’s campaign likely believes that he diminishes his stature if he attacks his opponents or responds to their broadsides. And if he carves out a controversial position on an issue he risks alienating some portion of the electorate. So the safest thing to do is assume a detached and oblivious posture while speaking only on broad, positive themes.

Of course, this assumes that Beebe thinks he is the frontrunner in the race who merely needs to hold his ground, rather than gain any. That’s a strange outlook for someone who neither is an incumbent nor has ever won a contested election, but perhaps he believes it is justified by his 23 years in public office or because Asa Hutchinson will not be a formidable opponent.

Or perhaps he is emulating Mark Pryor, who three years ago successfully used a similar strategy against Asa’s brother, Tim. Also the attorney general at the time, Pryor wrested a U.S. Senate seat from an incumbent with a positive campaign that was largely devoid of substance.

At the very least, Beebe has enough regard for the Pryor model that he hired its architects. Political consultant Karl Struble and pollster Harrison Hickman worked on Pryor’s 2002 race and now they are working for Beebe.

Insofar as Pryor is looked upon as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who found a way to win in a so-called “red state,” it makes sense that Beebe would want to follow his lead. But there may be some pitfalls in trying to live by the Book of Mark.

First of all, Beebe does not start with the name “Pryor.” Many of the people who voted for Pryor probably thought they were voting for his father, David, or at least they made a positive association with the former U.S. senator who remains a beloved and familiar political figure. Beebe does not even come close in terms of name recognition.

And as Beebe is not Pryor, Asa Hutchinson is not his brother. Tim Hutchinson’s re-election campaign was mortally wounded when he divorced his wife to marry one of his Senate staffers. That eviscerated the right-wing “family values” base of support he needed to compete effectively.

Asa Hutchinson does not have that problem, and while Beebe may think Hutchinson is dead in the water because of his role in the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Asa starts with a united Republican Party base and is already trying to moderate his image. Plus Hutchinson has more contested campaign experience than Beebe and should not be underestimated as a candidate.

In fact, Hutchinson is doing something important that Beebe is not. If the electorate is not really paying attention to politics right now, it at least has a subconscious that is registering the themes of the campaign. As Hutchinson associates himself early with certain issues, like property rights, he gains a certain authority and credibility on those issues that will be well established by the time his campaign is in full gear. In contrast, Beebe contributes to his existing obscurity by staying out of the fray and denying voters something concrete with which they can identify him.

Campaigns aren’t called “races” for nothing. It is difficult to go from standing still to a full sprint; the better way is to begin slowly and gradually build up speed. So far Beebe has been paralyzed by his role as attorney general and his “Believe in Arkansas” pitch doesn’t even amount to a healthy stretch.

The new year may bring a Democratic primary challenge from Bill Halter, which would force Beebe to at least get out for a warm-up run. It would be encouraging to see him stand for something, rather than stand around.


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