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Lincoln the 'Comeback Kid?' Halter camp charges hypocrisy

By Peter Slevin
LITTLE ROCK -- Sen. Blanche Lincoln did not come close to winning Tuesday's Democratic primary outright, but you would never know it from the speech she gave afterward.

Fifty-five percent of the voters preferred Lincoln's two challengers, forcing a June 8 runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Yet she declared that a popular vote victory over Halter and political unknown D.C. Morrison was a sign that she "cannot be written off."

"The next three weeks," Lincoln fairly shouted, "are going to prove us right!"

The 11 weeks since Halter challenged Lincoln, however, have demonstrated the two-term incumbent's vulnerability. He outworked her on the ground and -- helped by money and staff provided by labor unions and progressive groups -- he painted her as a creature of Washington.

"Arkansans have said today with a very loud voice that they know if you send the same people to Washington, you're guaranteed to get the same results," Halter, 49, told cheering supporters. "And three weeks from today, we'll finish the job."

Showing no appetite for compromise, Halter's campaign quickly rejected Lincoln's election night call for an end to "negative ads." She said Arkansans care about "issues, not all of this mudslinging."

"This is typical Washington hypocrisy," Halter spokeswoman Laura Chapin said in an e-mail. "Senator Lincoln has benefited from almost $2 million spent in the last two weeks from shadowy Republican front groups and corporate special interests attacking Bill Halter."

Lincoln pointedly avoided saying anything charitable about Halter in her public comments, but she thanked Morrison for running a "respectable and honorable campaign."

As the two Democrats pivot toward a runoff sure to be as intense as the race so far, they will be searching for ways to attract the 42,000 voters who cast ballots for Morrison, a conservative Little Rock businessman whose policy prescriptions include sealing the Mexican border and passing a national sales tax.

Lincoln was leading Halter by 45 percent to 43 percent early Wednesday morning, with 99 percent of precincts counted. Morrison collected 13 percent.

"I didn't expect him to get the high numbers that he did. That was hard to explain," Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (D) said in a post-election interview. "Here you've got a guy who says he's never voted for a Democrat in his life."

McDaniel, a Lincoln supporter, predicted that she would "make her case for who she is and what she's about. She is easily the one who is most poised to be successful in the fall."

The Democratic winner will face Rep. John Boozman (R), 59, who defeated seven challengers Tuesday. Lincoln, 49, beat Boozman's older brother to win her first Senate term in 1998.

Able to choose their ballots, Arkansans voted in far greater numbers for Democratic candidates than for Republicans. With 98 percent of the vote counted, about 326,000 people had voted Democratic, while about 140,000 had voted Republican.

The results seem to foretell volatility. College professor Philip Petray said he voted for Morrison principally because the little-known candidate was neither Halter nor Lincoln. Now Petray must choose between them.

Petray said the tone of the campaign was "nasty" and that turned him off. He felt Lincoln attacked Halter too often and was overly vague about her own record. He called her "a status-quo, don't-rock-the-boat person. Twelve years is enough."

Yet Halter seemed "too loose" and an "unknown quantity," he said.

That left Morrison.

Petray's friend Carol Reed, a retired auto salesman, chose Lincoln because she was "the lesser of two evils. Where is her record? They talk that farmers ought to vote for her because she's agriculture chairman, but what has she done?"

Yet Reed is suspicious of Halter, who spent 20 years outside of Arkansas before returning in 2005 to run for office and remains unpopular among the state's Democratic establishment.

"He just doesn't seem to fit in," Reed said.

Lincoln, who sent a fundraising e-mail within minutes of learning that she would face a runoff, spoke more forcefully to her followers than she had for much of the campaign.

"This is a fight that's important to wage. It's all about who we are as Arkansans," Lincoln said in an interview. "People have seen things that are untrue about me. They've heard things that are untrue about me. And it makes you want to fight even more."

She said she recognizes the challenge ahead.

"I'm not discounting the fact that Americans are frustrated. They're disappointed in Washington, there's no doubt," Lincoln said. "But ... I'm not a product of Washington. I'm not a typical senator."

McDaniel credited Halter with having "a lot of motivated support. If he is the nominee, we will support him." But he told the crowd earlier that Lincoln shares a trait with a certain former Democratic governor, Bill Clinton.

"Arkansas," McDaniel crowed, "has been home to more than one 'Comeback Kid.'"

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By Peter Slevin  |  May 19, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency  | Tags: Arkansas election, Arkansas senate primary, Bill Halter, Blanche Lincoln, Senate, United States Senate  
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