PRUDEN: A small earthquake tips Arkansas red

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. | Sometimes earthquakes in small places say something about what happens when a quake strikes in big places.

Arkansas is one such small place, once regarded as an obscure redoubt of barefoot hillbillies, the butt of cheap music-hall jokes (“An Arkansas virgin is a girl who can run faster than her brothers.”) The mean media stereotypes endure among the ignorant. But Arkansas, with only six votes in the Electoral College, is a small place where the politicians dream big. One of them actually became president, remembered mostly for advancing the stereotype with his cheesy sexual adventuring in the White House, and another who is still trying to get his party’s presidential nomination.

The state was a charter member of the Solid South when the Solid South, stretching across 2,000 miles from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, was all about Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Democrats with horse sense along with dog loyalty. When conservative Democrats were all but driven out of the party to regroup as a Solid South for the once-despised Republicans, Arkansas alone resisted, persuading itself that nothing had changed. “Arkansas,” said Haley Barbour, the governor of neighboring Mississippi and a tireless Republican strategist and campaigner, “is a tough nut to crack.”

This year, the nut is clearly cracking, and even glum Arkansas Democrats concede that the state, which has voted for the Republican candidate in seven of the past 11 presidential elections (George Wallace won in 1968), is finally tipping red all over. The governor and one Blue Dog Democratic congressman are expected to survive the Republican wave, but one U.S. Senate and three U.S. House seats, along with several state offices and dozens of state legislative seats, are expected to slip into Republican hands.

The prospective headline loser is Blanche Lambert Lincoln, seeking a third six-year term in the U.S. Senate. She was forced into a runoff in the Democratic primary against an opponent as liberal as a Democrat dares to be in these precincts. She has run a dismal general-election race against a colorless Republican challenger, Rep. John Boozman, pronounced boze-man for good reason in sober-sided, church-going Arkansas. She has been down as many as 40 points in some polls, and takes heart in a recent poll that shows her down by only 15 with three weeks to go. Internal Republican polls have consistently put the margin at 7 to 10 points.

She shouldn’t be in trouble at all. She’s the daughter of an old, prominent Delta family, with a voting record that tilts only a little left. Arkansas tolerated J. William Fulbright, after all. As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, she should have effective cover with the cotton, rice and soybean farmers. But she has been a reliable vote for Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership when needed, and, worst of all, she’s a confirmed “national” Democrat.

Two remarkable polls vividly illustrate what the Democrats are up against here and in many other places this year. On two nights in September, a reputable polling firm with Democratic ties conducted surveys of three minor statewide races to gauge partisan sentiment. The first night, the pollsters identified the candidates by party, and the Republican candidates won by margins of 17, 18 and 25 points. The second night, the candidates were not identified by party, and the Democrats won by 3, 6 and 10 points.

Sen. Lincoln continues to flail about as she did all summer, tacking right and then retreating left. The other day she stumbled into the Gender Gap, first dug by feminists in days gone by, but lately hard to find. In a speech at Van Buren, in the foothills of the Ozarks, she said she’s campaigning now as a woman because women know how to bring people together. “No disrespect to the men here, but we women have to figure out how to do that. We’ve got committees galore that we work on, and the only way to get the church dinner done and the PTA done and the sewing circle done and our jobs and taking care of kids and all of that is, we delegate and we work together.” Mr. Boozman hardly needed to reply to that, and offered only boilerplate: “I don’t think jobs are about what gender you are,” he said, mildly.

Some Democrats have tried to inject the race issue, with the worn-out argument that Republican criticism of Barack Obama and his agenda is only about his race. Happily, that chastened hound is staying under the porch this year. Bill Clinton should have told his frightened home boys that this year “it’s about the economy, stupid.”

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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