Five white guys in dark suits running for the U.S. Senate.
Democrats, the primary next Tuesday.
The winner to oppose Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee, unopposed for the Republican nomination, in the general election in November.
Superficial differences among them (since that's about all voters will have to go on):
*One looks like a mere boy — a strapping country lad.
*One looks like a farm implement dealer.
*One looks like an escapee from a cartoon, with a countenance strangely pulled and slanted, like a pictograph from the Chinese, and some of the baddest bad hair in political memory.
*One, with Nixonian scowl, darting stormy glances at the opposition, looks like Shakespeare might've thought him up — flatbed heir to the brooding monarchs and dark thanes who paced the heath and thought those big old booming thoughts.
*And one actually looks like a U.S. senator, a prototype and archetype, with the haircut, the cut of clothes, the posture, the mannerisms, and a seeming gross of Bumpersian, Gary Hartish senatorial intangibles.
Which is which? The ballot will have no thumbnail photos so the matter of choosing among them becomes less one of appearances than of name recognition.
The cartoon-looking guy with the bad hair is the only one of the five with any real name recognition. He earned it by way of earlier precinct wars — political campaigns galore, all successful, for state constitutional offices. He has served at least 10 terms each as attorney general, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state, and probably did a term or two, somewhere in between, as auditor and land commissioner, though no one can remember for sure. Though he's only 57 years old, he's been on the Arkansas political scene since the end of the Spanish-American War. Seems like he has.
One theory is that he won his first statewide election by way of name recognition, in that he had the same last name as the long-term incumbent that he succeeded — and it was thought that many voters checked the box with the familiar name and never knew the difference.
The farm implement dealer-looking guy, who's really a prominent east Arkansas lawyer, has spent more than $300,000 in this campaign trying to overcome the name-recognition deficit. One measure of how successful he's been is that one of the other candidates, the cartoon-looking guy with the bad hair, has repeatedly referred to him by the name of another prominent east Arkansas lawyer who isn't even kin to him.
Is this subtle mischief on the part of the cartoon-looking guy with the bad hair, or just flightiness? (A blind guess: just flightiness.)
The boy-looking guy is named Smith, which isn't the advantage in Arkansas politics that you might expect. This state's voters love Joneses — and exalt them at nearly every opportunity — but not Smiths. No one knows why. Not a Smith in our gubernatorial or congressional family tree.
The senator-looking guy's first name is Luther but he has abbreviated it down to a friendlier-sounding, regular guy-sounding Lu. Questions: will inattentive voters, seeing that name Lu on the ballot, assume that the candidate is a woman? And if they do, will that hurt or help his prospects?
*A study some years ago by the pollster Eugene Newsom determined that candidates with trochaic last names (that is, two syllables, with the stress on the first: Clinton, Tucker, Pryor, Bumpers, Faubus, Fulbright, etc.) won a is proportionate number of major political races in Arkansas. If that likelihood applies here, the farm implement dealer-looking guy (Bristow) and the senator-looking guy (Hardin) have the edge. The cartoon-looking guy with the bad hair might have it, too--depending on whether Bryant is a two-syllable name. Residents of the town of Bryant (Saline County) tend toward a one-syllable pronunciation — Brint, with a long eye-sounding iin the middle. Which might suggest that the cartoon-looking guy with the bad hair won't carry Saline County but should do well elsewhere in the state. In any event, the wacked-out Shakespeare character-looking guy and the boy-looking guy are, in this way of looking at the race, screwed.
The only unusual sounding voice among the five candidates belongs to the farm implement dealer-looking guy. The ad agency that publicizes his campaign begins a profile of him by noting that he speaks "slowly and deliberately. His voice has a North Arkansas twang that resonates like a steel string on a cheap guitar." The farm implement dealer-looking guy might want to know from his ad man why it had to be a "cheap" guitar. Maybe not one of Segovia's, or B.B. King's, but still —
A gamble has been to try to turn this manner of speaking to advantage by allowing the candidate to voice his own TV commercials, Tom Bodette-like, in which he relates, among other things, his love for country music.
The other four candidates' voices are a piney woods growl, a delta drawl, a Ouachita nasal whine, and a high hillbilly strain flattened and retoned by the broadened vistas of the Arkansas River valley. That last belongs to the senator-looking guy, who is from Russellville, and you can trace it back through Dale Bumpers (Charleston) to Orval Faubus (Huntsville). An extraordinarily place-specific sound.
These five guys have large stashes of pull-string responses to the questions they are asked often. Here are some of those responses, culled from two debates last week:
"I'm a down-to-earth conservative...a Democrat with no strings attached."
"I want to restore optimism about the future."
"I'm not a career politician."
"I want to go to Washington to represent working families. I want to take small-town Arkansas values to Congress."
"I want to go to Washington to fight for our seniors, our children, and our veterans."
"I'm the only candidate who's remained positive through this entire campaign."
"My commitment to education goes very deep."
"My commitment to education goes back a long, long way."
"I'll be a senator concerned with the next generation, not the next election."
"We have to have a budget process that allows for long-term solutions."
These are more of these where those came from. Attribution seems pointless.
*One of the candidates, the boy-looking guy, is the walking-across-Arkansas candidate. He's pledged to walk a thousand miles through the state during the campaign, and at last report he'd finished 850. He's still overweight, though, and has that look of really spreading out and taking on mass when the 1,000 miles is finished and he goes sedentary. Not a good sign, because fat guys as a rule aren't elected to the U.S. Senate, where the median is downright scrawny. Arkansas hasn't had a fat U.S. senator since the Gilded Age, when all major American politicians who weren't consumptives were absolute porkers. What hoofing around the Arkansas byways has to do with senatoring is anybody's guess, but the boy-looking walking guyhas clippings to show you that a Florida walking guy got elected to the Senate, a Texas walking guy got elected to the House, and an India walking guy got elected recently to some high office over there in India.
*The wacked-out Shakespeare character-looking guy has just this week launched what he calls a 4,250-mile "Victory Tour" of Arkansas in a chartered bus. It's possible he will roar past the boy-looking walking guy as the latter is clambering into Lake Village on the last blistery segment of his 1,000-mile trek. If so, the boy-looking guy would be well-advised to get way over on the shoulder and maybe even down an embankment and across a ditch.
*The boy-looking walking guy also distinguishes himself from the others by noting that he's the only candidate who's not a lawyer. (This doesn't go over as well as it did back when Tommy Robinson was 'gogueing it, and the boy-looking walking guy doesn't express it as well did as the author who might have invented the wacked-out dark thane-looking guy on the bus.)
*The wacked-out Shakespeare character-looking guy on the bus claims he's the only combat veteran of the bunch (Vietnam, Marines), and during the debates he holds up a framed display of his medals and decorations to illustrate the point.
* Those medals might be the campaign's second-best visual aid, behind the wacked-out Shakespeare character-looking guy's corrupt politician-looking Energizer Bunny ripoff cartoon character in his TV commercials. Don't try to engage the wacked-out Shakespeare character-looking guy on the bus in a discussion of this bunny, though, because he has serious stuff on his discussion agenda, such as "the need to preserve Medicare and Social Security by isolating each of them in its own untouchable trust." He wants your attention on this. You would be well-advised to go along with him on it, too.
*The senator-looking guy is the only anti-abortion candidate among the five. He hasn't made an issue of anti-ing abortion — and his opponents, wary of stirring the hornet's nest, haven't either — but his position would have some strategic post-primary importance (or entertainment value) in a matchup against Huckabee, the Republican, who is also anti-abortion to about the same mid-dudgeon degree. The senator-looking guy is also a lay preacher (Methodist) to Huckabee's pulpit professional (Baptist), and more so than with the others Huckabee might have trouble out-righteousing him in the general-election campaign. The closest the senator-looking guy has come in the primary campaign to saying anything about all this was his comment during one of the debates, "I have to scratch my head when Newt Gingrich talks to meabout family values."
*The farm implement dealer-looking guy thinks he's the only political novice in the race and regards this as a point in his favor. The wacked-out Shakespeare character-looking guy on the bus hasn't ever run for elective office, either, but he seems to concede the distinction to the farm implement dealer-looking guy, though he does so impatiently, as if he considers this another triviality and distraction, which, OK, it probably is.
*The cartoon-looking guy with the bad hair is the only one who has campaigned extensively against Germany and Japan. Yes, Germany and Japan. Why would someone try to wrench Germany and Japan into an Arkansas senate-race issue if he didn't have to? Weird. He also didn't have to put himself on record favoring the Republican/gunlobby effort to repeal the assault-weapons ban, but last week he did that, too. These strange initiatives or lurches taken together have the look of (1) a senatorial candidate who has his doubts trying to do something senatorial-looking, or (2) a front-runner trying to fight complacency and overconfidence by sallying forth to do battle against some windmills, or (c) someone going to considerable lengths to get his mind off his problems with his hair. Their effect has been to call attention to the suspicions raised by the wacked-out Shakespeare character-looking guy on the bus and the farm implement dealer-looking guy that the cartoon-looking guy with the bad hair might be allowing himself to be influenced by big special interest contributions he has received from out-of-state political action committees.
The primary campaign has followed the dreadful debate format in which the candidates gather occasionally on the stage of some auditorium and parade their wares before a panel of expert questioners, with an audience looking on, or nodding off, not altogether unlike a bathing beauty contest. This format insures that there'll be no real exchanges between or among the candidates; no fireworks, no revelations, no surprises, no insights; but a lot of those pull-string bromides that the candidates have practiced sufficiently before the mirror, or before wife and dog, to declaim publicly with some confidence. The farm implement dealer-looking guy, who had been accustomed to thinking in terms of three-hour or three-day jury summations, says the biggest challenge in this campaign has been learning to think and express himself in terms of 30-second TV sound bites or 2-minute "closing statements" in these debates. That is, he has learned to politick withoutthinking, or to do it within a simulacrum of thinking so shallow that it hardly qualifies.
An observer of one of the debates in northwest Arkansas was quoted in the Fayetteville newspaper as saying: "I'd have to say Kevin Smith was the winner. He stayed above all the mud-tossing and what-not."
"What-not" is a good term for what occurs in these debates.
A whole lot of what-not.
The Senate seat sought by these five candidates has been occupied by David Pryor, an old sweetie, since 1978. It was occupied before that by John McClellan, an old sourpuss, who occupied it from 1942 until his death in 1977. The two of them together held it for more than a third of the time that it has existed — a third of the time that Arkansas has been a state. They were both Democrats, both from Camden, but they could hardly have been less alike, so there's no real political tradition, and no tradition of personal political style, in the position. Pryor tried to root McClellan out of the seat in 1972 but McClellan was too tough. People still remember McClellan shouting "Cookie jars!" at Pryor in one of their TV debates, and Pryor wilting under the old man's malevolent stare. That might have been the last moment of high drama and high comedy, the last genuinely epochal moment, in Arkansas politics. Pryor had to wait for the old scorpion to die to take his place. Politics has since become politer and slimier.
The wacked-out Shakespeare character-looking guy's father, a former governor, tried to beat McClellan out of this Senate seat in 1954, 18 years before Pryor tried it, and McClellan was too tough for him, too. The wacked-out Shakespeare character-looking guy, at age 12, campaigned with his father then and thinks to this day that the election was stolen from his old man. It probably was, too. Legally (through poll tax manipulation), if not illegally (east Arkansas vote theft), but probably illegally too.
The farm implement-looking guy is the only one of the five to exhort as a political role model the man he would replace in the Senate. "I deeply admire and respect David Pryor," he says. "It is his kind of decency, care, values and common sense that I intend to emulate if I am elected."
(Editor's note: In case you might care, the full credits follow.
The boy: Kevin Smith.
The cartoon-looking character: Winston Bryant.
The farm implement dealer: Bill Bristow.
The one that looks like Shakespeare might've thought him up: Sandy McMath.
The one that looks like a senator: Lu Hardin.)