- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie touted the Republican Party’s nominees for governor and the U.S. Senate in Arkansas on Friday, as the GOP tries to build on its recent gains in a state that had been a Democratic holdout in the South.

Headlining a rally with three other current and former Republican governors, the potential 2016 White House hopeful described Asa Hutchinson as someone who connects with everyday Arkansans. He also later praised Republican Senate hopeful Tom Cotton, downplaying the congressman’s opposition to disaster relief legislation for New Jersey and other states affected by Superstorm Sandy.

Christie, the head of the Republican Governors Association, has called the Arkansas governor’s race the party’s best opportunity to take such a post away from a Democrat. Hutchinson is running against Democrat and fellow ex-congressman Mike Ross. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.

“(Hutchinson) knows you because he’s one of you,” Christie said. “What you’re going to do on Tuesday is you’re going to elevate to the highest office in this state someone who is one of you, who’s lived your life, who’s confronted the same struggles you confront, who’s grasped at the same opportunities you and your family have grasped at to make your lives better.”

Ross has criticized Christie and Hutchinson over ads the RGA has run targeting the Democratic nominee. In a statement Friday, he called the New Jersey governor “an out-of-state politician who has spent millions on sleazy attacks.”

Christie shared the stage with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. He’s among several high-profile surrogates who have been visiting the state ahead of Tuesday’s election. Former President and ex-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton planned to headline a series of rallies around the state for Democrats on Sunday.

Republicans view the Arkansas Senate race as key to their efforts to win the six seats needed to hold a majority in the chamber next year.

Christie’s visit also comes after Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor has repeatedly criticized Cotton for his vote against legislation aimed at helping victims of the storm that hit New Jersey, New York and Connecticut in 2012. Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey visited Arkansas earlier this year to campaign for Pryor and to highlight Cotton’s votes.

Cotton has defended his vote against the $50.5 billion Sandy relief measure in 2013, saying the legislation included funding for projects that didn’t help storm victims. Cotton said he supports annual Federal Emergency Management Agency funding and the traditional disaster aid process.

Christie, who had lobbied Congress hard for aid, praised Cotton after Friday’s rally and downplayed his opposition to the relief package.

“If you’re looking for the candidate you agree with 100 percent of the time, go home and look in the mirror. You’re it,” Christie said. “Tom and I are never going to agree on everything, but I agree much more with Tom Cotton than I ever would with Mark Pryor.”

During the rally, Cotton continued trying to link Pryor to President Barack Obama.

“I’m looking high and low, everywhere I go, for that one mysterious Arkansan who agrees with Barack Obama 93 percent of the time,” Cotton said. “I can’t find them. I have to go all the way to Washington, D.C., to find Mark Pryor in the United States Senate.”

Pryor later dismissed those remarks.

“That’s part of his mantra,” Pryor told reporters in Little Rock. “He’s based his whole campaign against one person and I’m running for 3 million people and I think people around the state understand that.”

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Associated Press writer Kelly P. Kissel contributed to this report from Little Rock, Ark.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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