- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2000

CAMDEN, Ark. Four Democrats, each certain he or she can defeat incumbent Republican Jay Dickey this November, head into the final month of primary campaigning in one of the wildest congressional races in memory in this southern Arkansas district.

The four agree on most of the prime problems facing this relatively poor district issues primarily dealing with the elderly and the needy but they often differ on how they could make a difference in Washington.

And debate, once considered friendly, has become mean and raucous.

A handful of polls, still semisecret as of last weekend, have done little to identify the strongest challenger to the four-term Republican congressman. But, perhaps not too surprisingly, each of the four Democratic candidates claims to be running ahead, or at least a close second.

Mr. Dickey, 60, a Pine Bluff businessman who shocked Democrats in this district by winning in 1992, became the first Republican to do so in 115 years. He has been going about his business with little discernible campaign effort.

Mr. Dickey probably won't know who the Democratic nominee will be until mid-June. The primary election here is May 23, but few expect one of the Democrats to win without a run-off, set for June 13.

"I've been watching, and listening," he said recently. "When I know who my opponent will be, I'll jump in there," he added.

A grueling campaign

Given the fact that the district comprising 26 counties, roughly the bottom third of the state is difficult to traverse, it has become a rather grueling campaign. Without the use of planes or helicopters, the candidates have driven thousands of miles by auto or van, sometimes on less-than-comfortable back roads.

"It's really press-the-flesh campaigning," said Erick Motley, 42, of Magnolia. "Can't vote for somebody you haven't met," he added.

None of the candidates has aired radio and television spots, though a smattering should emerge this week. None wants to disclose media strategies or polls.

But according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission last week, only one candidate has raised enough money to assure heavy TV coverage.

Two debates last week, in El Dorado and Camden, heightened what appears to be increasing antagonism between some of the contenders shattering what had been seen as "friendly debate" and abruptly turning the campaign into what one aide called "a different kind of race."

"It was inevitable," said the campaign aide, who asked not to be identified. "There are too many claims, too many disagreements; too much to lose," he added. "It's going to get dirty."

By week's end, some of the accusations and barbs had become very personal.

One candidate accused another of lying about a March poll that claimed the candidate who commissioned the poll was 30 points ahead of everybody. Another accused a foe of once voting for bills that seemed in direct conflict with what the candidate now espouses. Another ridiculed a poll that showed one Democrat running far behind the incumbent Republican, as if he were already the nominee.

Four challengers

The four Democrats clearly are as diverse as this crazy-quilt district.

The 4th District has no large cities, the largest towns being Pine Bluff, Hot Springs, Texarkana, El Dorado, Arkadelphia and Camden.

In an area where the per capita annual income is less than $10,000, the economic mainstays include timber, agriculture, cattle, petrochemicals and tourism.

State Sen. Mike Ross, 38, is the clear Democratic favorite if one listens to the pros or if one peruses the FEC finance reports.

For the first three months of this year, Mr. Ross raised about $158,000 even more than the $127,000 accumulated by the incumbent Republican.

Since last June when Mr. Ross began his quest for the congressional seat, he has raised about $540,000. Mr. Dickey has raised $789,000 since January 1999. The Ross funding dwarfs his Democratic opponents' efforts.

Mr. Ross, a state senator for a decade and the youngest ever, at 28, elected to such a post in Arkansas, owns a pharmacy in Prescott, a town of 4,000.

Two other Democratic candidates, who admit they will never match Mr. Ross' deep pockets, nevertheless claim they are better known than the senator.

Judy Smith, 47, of Camden and Dewayne Graham, 50, of Hot Springs both claim they are recognized and trusted by the electorate and that that will make the difference come May 13.

"People sometimes think that money votes," said Mrs. Smith last weekend, "but it's people who vote." She has been tirelessly working the district, even going door-to-door in smaller communities.

"I'm going to have enough money, though," she said. She said she has raised about $100,000, "more than I had two years ago."

Mrs. Smith, the only black challenger, runs a nonprofit organization here in Camden and made many connections in the district two years ago as she mounted a losing campaign against Mr. Dickey. She lost by about 24,000 votes, 58 percent to 42 percent.

Mr. Graham was a consumer reporter for Little Rock's leading television station, Channel 7, for more than a decade. He quit last year to run in this race. He believes "and I'm still amazed by it," he said recently people who watched him solve "the little man's problems" will turn out in droves to send him to Washington.

"I think the people know who in this race will stand up for them in Washington," said Mr. Graham. "I know how to do things that count. I've been doing it for most of my life."

Mr. Graham's consumer presentation in Little Rock was called "7 on Your Side," and his radio spots will attempt to remind voters by closing with, "Vote for Dewayne Graham. He's on your side!"

Though some claim that the Little Rock station, and Mr. Graham's consumer reporting, did not reach throughout the 4th District, a stroll down Hot Springs' main thoroughfare recently indicated that many do recall the reporter and his work.

"You're that guy on Channel 7," gushed one woman as Mr. Graham window-shopped with his aide Philip Ellison. Then she proceeded to gather several friends and return to ask for his autograph.

The fourth Democratic candidate is the youngest, but the only one who actually knows his way around Washington.

Bruce Harris, 31, of Pine Bluff was an aide to former Arkansas Rep. Blanche Lincoln and once served as chief of staff for current Rep. Marion Berry, a Democrat. His family is well known and respected in southern Arkansas. His grandfather was a legend in the state Supreme Court, where he served as chief justice longer than anyone in history.

The four together offer a remarkable number of talents and attributes. Each appears strong in certain areas, relatively weak or at least hesitant in others.

Mr. Harris, interviewed at a chili supper in Arkadelphia a few days ago, perhaps put it in the proper perspective.

"If any one of us had all of the pluses you mentioned, that candidate would be unbeatable," said the ex-congressional aide.

Courting seniors

Mr. Ross said last week he felt he deserved the role of favorite because he had been fighting for increased benefits and opportunities for the elderly and children for a long time.

"This is America, and we can do better," he said, "and that's why one of the top priorities of my campaign is about fighting for medical prescription benefits for our seniors.

"You just don't buy health insurance today without a prescription benefit," Mr. Ross said. "Medicare is a great program and that's why I say we need to spend part of the budget surplus not only to save Medicare, but to modernize it."

Mr. Ross says he personally knows many who cannot afford medicine they need.

"A lot of people talk about seniors who have to choose between medicine and groceries," he said. "I not only talk about it, I see it, every week, in my own pharmacy."

Mrs. Smith, born on a sharecropper's farm in Ville Platte, La., offered a derisive laugh at Mr. Ross' remarks.

"He and the others might have read about, or heard about, people who must choose between their light bill, their mortgage, their prescriptions or their food, but I live there," said Mrs. Smith.

"I live where these people live," she went on. "They can talk about health care all they want. My struggles are the struggles of the people in south Arkansas."

Mr. Harris introduced a proposal a few weeks ago to slice the national debt and simultaneously fund supplemental prescription drugs. "I think some of the others are starting to leapfrog onto it," he said.

In brief, he suggests Social Security should be taken off budget, "then take 50 percent of the projected budget surplus and use it to pay down the debt in the first five years. And then you use the remainder to fund our priorities like Medicare, prescription drug benefits, whatever else you may want to talk about, like tax cuts, education initiatives."

Mr. Harris, who just completed a four-day foray into all 26 counties in a van called "New Leadership Express," said he had done no polling and did not intend to.

"Everybody's got a poll that shows them winning by a far margin," he said. "You know how that goes."

Mrs. Smith's poll, released piecemeal last week, caused considerable response.

A survey of 400 likely voters in the district, compiled by Abacus Associates of Hatfield, Mass., between March 1 and March 3, indicated that Mrs. Smith led Mr. Ross by as much as 30 percent and that Mr. Ross' negatives were higher than the Republican Mr. Dickey.

"Smith is poised to win the primary" and "Ross is clearly a flawed candidate," the summary concluded.

Oddly enough, Mr. Ross ignored that poll, but it was Mr. Graham despite coming out second best on most of the poll issues who challenged Mrs. Smith.

"Time for her to stop talking and show the proof," Mr. Graham told the Smith campaign and the media in a press release.

"I'm not sitting around and worrying about what Dewayne says or wants," Mrs. Smith replied.

Countdown to the primary

So, as the final month of the primary campaign begins, Mr. Ross envisions himself, to use the vernacular of the South, "in the catbird seat."

Still, he would like the other three to stop taking pot shots at him.

"I wish they'd stop attacking me and join me in attacking the real problems of Arkansas," he said. He said he plans no in-your-face allegations, "because I welcome them and need them to become an important part of our campaign in the fall."

"I think most people are sick and tired of attack politics," he said.

Mr. Ross said Mrs. Smith had made "frivolous" and "vicious" charges against him based on the fact he had missed an important Senate vote in March 1997 on a bill to increase funding for breast cancer research.

"She's been going around telling breast cancer survivors that I don't care about them, because I missed that vote," Mr. Ross said. "It's that vicious and horrendous."

"He wasn't there," said Mrs. Smith. "Then he gave two different answers as to why he missed it."

Mr. Ross said he co-sponsored the bill and voted for it on Feb. 13, 1997, but when it came back to the Senate three weeks later for what he termed a "technical, non-controversial amendment," he was touring tornado-stricken Arkadelphia with President Clinton and several other officials.

Mrs. Smith is highly critical of Mr. Ross' Senate career, charging that "he was just occupying space" and saying, "He has done so little in the Senate. His record is deplorable."

Mr. Harris said the pundits might be correct that Mr. Ross is the odds-on favorite, but he questioned Mr. Ross' release of part of a poll a few days ago that showed him running at 36 percent against Mr. Dickey's 48 percent and saying nothing about his odds against the other three contenders in the primary.

"That was strange," said Mr. Harris.

"Looking at it in perspective," he said, "Ross has been in the Senate for ten years and has been running for ten months and spent $100,000, and if he doesn't come up any better than the Democrat nominee in 1996, a fellow who spent only $5,000 against Mr. Dickey, I'd say he was in trouble."

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