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“It missed out on really going Republican during the Clinton years,” Boozman said. Now, he said, Obama’s unpopularity and the public’s intense dislike of the president’s health care law are feeding a GOP wave that threatens to end Pryor’s career.

Roby Brock, who hosts a business-and-politics TV show in Arkansas, said both parties are airing attack ads that boil down to “Pryor equals Obama, Cotton equals extremism.”

Obama “has been toxic for Arkansas Democrats,” Brock said. “There is a cultural disconnect,” he said, and unpopular policies such as the health insurance law “have been exploited expertly by Arkansas Republicans.”

Some see talk of a “cultural disconnect” between white rural voters and a black president as code for racial resentment.

Janine Parry, a political scientist and pollster at the University of Arkansas, says it’s simplistic to attribute Arkansas’ declining Democratic loyalty entirely to race. But race “is central” to the shifting election patterns, she said.

Lincoln’s lopsided loss in 2010 clearly is a red flag for Pryor, Parry said, but he has some advantages Lincoln lacked.

“First,” she said, “he’s a Pryor.” Also, Parry noted, 2010 was a devastating year for Democrats nationwide, and November seems unlikely to produce a comparable “wave election.”

For Pryor to win, she said, “he’s got to convince people he’s a Pryor even more than he’s a Democrat.”

Cotton is doing all he can to prevent that.

Senator Pryor has been voting with President Obama more than 90 percent of the time,” Cotton told about 50 people who helped open his Little Rock campaign headquarters this weekend. He never fails to mention Pryor’s vote for the 2010 health care law, and often cites Obama’s support for the 2009 economic stimulus.

Pryor says efforts to equate him with Obama won’t work. “People in Arkansas know that’s not true,” he said in an interview. “They know me, and they’re fairly pleased with the job I’ve done,” he said.

Pryor promotes his efforts to ease partisan gridlock, such as his role in two-party negotiations to end the October government shutdown. His campaign emphasizes his local initiatives, such as “saving Arkansas State University’s ROTC program.”

While Cotton portrays Pryor as indistinguishable from national Democrats, the senator paints Cotton as someone beyond the GOP’s normal conservatism, a tea partyer and “outlier” even in Arkansas’ all-Republican House delegation.

In 28 House votes last year, Cotton “was the only Republican in the Arkansas delegation to vote a certain way,” Pryor said in an interview at a duck-hunting supply store in Stuttgart. “So he’s not only out of touch with Arkansas, he’s out of touch with the Arkansas Republican Party.”

In one of those 28 votes, Cotton opposed renewal of a massive farm bill. House conservatives blocked the bill, demanding deeper cuts in food stamp spending.

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