- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman is known as a soft-spoken man given more to quietly sharing jokes about his days as a Razorbacks football player than memorable stem winders or full-throated, rallying speeches. All that changed when Boozman was asked about the Republican presidential nominee’s boasts about groping and kissing women without their consent.

“As a husband, father of three daughters, and grandfather of two precious little girls, if I ever heard anyone speak this way about them, they would be shopping for a new set of teeth,” Boozman said, referring to Donald Trump’s 2005 comments. But days later, in his only debate for his re-election bid, he re-affirmed his support for the GOP’s presidential nominee.

It’s a familiar position for Arkansas’ top Republicans, who are walking a fine line by condemning Trump’s remarks but not backing down from their endorsement of the party’s nominee. There’s no sign the stance will hurt Boozman or other Republicans in the Nov. 8 election, with Trump widely expected to win the state’s six electoral votes. But the questions for the state’s GOP officials over supporting such a controversial candidate are likely to linger.

Trump loomed over the debates Boozman and the state’s four Republican U.S. House members participated in last week, with each being asked how they can condemn Trump’s offensive comments while simultaneously making the case that he should be the leader of the free world. Boozman didn’t shy away from his criticism of Trump, but said his concerns about the billionaire don’t override his belief that a Republican ticket would ensure a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think we’re in a situation where we have two very flawed candidates,” said Boozman, who cited problems he sees with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton including her use of a private email server as secretary of state.

Trump’s comments have offered a very narrow opening for Democratic challenger Conner Eldridge, who has trailed Boozman in fundraising and name recognition. He’s released web videos calling Boozman a “silent enabler” of Trump and used the debate to again call on the incumbent lawmaker to drop his endorsement.

“We should not give Donald Trump an open mic with American foreign policy,” Eldridge said last week. “We should not give him the nuclear codes. He has shown time and again that should not happen.”

The line of attack against Boozman, who’s been far from an enthusiastic Trump backer, are a signal that Democrats will keep reminding voters of the Republicans’ refusal to disavow the presidential hopeful long after Nov. 8. The next targets could be Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, both of whom spoke at the Republican National Convention this year. Both have criticized Trump’s 2005 comments, but have said they still back the GOP hopeful.

The Trump endorsements pose a challenge for Hutchinson and Rutledge, both of whom are widely expected to seek re-election in 2018. Backing the GOP nominee will be fodder for Democrats in both races, but abandoning him could invite a primary challenge. Like Boozman, both are painting their support as bigger than one candidate.

“You have two candidates that are both flawed and the American public just has to evaluate it,” Hutchinson told reporters last week. “My evaluation is on the big picture items of where our economy goes, where we go in fighting ISIS, in terms of the Supreme Court and I also hope that both candidates can in the third debate, as we get ready for that, concentrate on the serious issues that really affect the American public.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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