- Associated Press - Saturday, October 8, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Democratic challenger Conner Eldridge has been itching for a debate against Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman so much that the symbol of his campaign is a red flatbed truck that the former federal prosecutor says he’s willing to use as an improvised debate stage - including two lecterns - anywhere in Arkansas.

Eldridge will get his chance this week in the only televised debate in this low-key, little-watched contest, but he faces a high hurdle to make any impact in a state that national Democrats - not to mention many of Arkansas’ voters - have already written off as reliably Republican territory.

Trailing behind Boozman in fundraising and name recognition, Eldridge needs a high-profile flub or misstep from the incumbent Republican to change the dynamics of a race that isn’t viewed as competitive. That’s why he launched the general election campaign by challenging Boozman to a series of debates around the state, and his first two television ads have featured him driving in the debate-ready truck.

“We built this debate truck because I’ll debate John Boozman anytime, anywhere,” Eldridge says in one of the spots.

As an attorney, Eldridge hoped to use debates with Boozman as a chance to make his case to voters in a state where he remains little-known. Instead of a series of debates, Eldridge is only getting one chance to square off with Boozman. He faces a rival who in past debates has stayed on message despite efforts to knock him off-guard.

A debate could provide a rare unscripted moment a low-dollar, low-energy campaign that has paled when compared to the titanic battle in Arkansas two years ago. At this point in 2014, the state was inundated by TV ads heading into Republican Tom Cotton’s victory over then-Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. Boozman and Eldridge have only begun airing ads in recent weeks, and national groups are mostly staying on the sidelines.

Six years ago, Boozman handily won the Republican Party’s nomination for the Senate despite a crowded, eight-person primary and went on to rout then-Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the November election. Boozman in both debates that fall stuck to his anti-Obama message, trying to link Lincoln to the president and his health care overhaul. Lincoln, meanwhile, used both face-offs to continue to her argument that she was a voice of moderation in an increasingly partisan Washington.

Both messages are likely to linger in Wednesday’s debate, which will also feature Libertarian Frank Gilbert, but with some differences. More than 300,000 low-income Arkansans are now receiving coverage through the health overhaul and the state’s uninsured rate has dropped, numbers Eldridge will likely point to as he hammers Boozman for his votes to repeal the federal law.

President Barack Obama is leaving office in January, but his name will also be a familiar refrain for Boozman. The Republican senator and his campaign rarely miss an opportunity to note that Eldridge was appointed U.S. attorney by a president who remains deeply unpopular in Arkansas. He’ll also likely try to tie Eldridge to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who’s not expected to win her adopted home state in November’s election.

The biggest unknown in this debate, however, is how much of a factor Donald Trump will play. Eldridge has repeatedly criticized Boozman for supporting the Republican presidential nominee and has released web videos highlighting Boozman’s endorsement and Trump’s offensive comments.

Both Boozman and Eldridge are likely looking to a more high profile Senate debate for guidance on how to handle the Trump question. Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said in a debate with Democratic challenger Maggie Hassan that she “absolutely” would tell a child to aspire to be like Trump. Ayotte later said she misspoke and said she doesn’t think Trump or Clinton are good examples for children. Both Hassan and Ayotte have released ads since then highlighting the dustup.

Such a flub would provide the only high-profile moment for a race that for now seems destined to stay under the radar. That’s why Eldridge is staking so much of his campaign on this face-off.


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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