Lincoln looks shaky in Arkansas primary runoff 

Arkansas Democrats are showing signs of the anti-incumbent fever sweeping the nation, as two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln struggles to keep her party's support.

Lincoln came out ahead in the May 18 Democratic primary but earned only 44 percent of the vote, short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff and less than two points ahead of Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

The latest poll shows Lincoln is trailing Halter by 3 points.

"A year ago, I don't think anyone would have envisioned Lincoln not winning the primary," University of Arkansas political science professor Andrew Dowdle said.

But voter discontent has exploded in recent months and has claimed three congressional incumbents this election cycle. Arkansas Democrats have ousted incumbents in the past, including in 1974 when Dale Bumpers unseated Sen. James Fulbright in the Democratic primary.

Lincoln, a moderate in a swing state, has long been considered vulnerable in a November face off with a Republican, but her political fortunes took a turn for the worse within her own party in recent months. Lincoln also earned the ire of big labor by refusing to support legislation that would make it easier to unionize workers.

The outcome of the June 8 primary may depend on voters who backed conservative Democrat D.C. Morrison in the May 18 primary. Morrison took 13 percent of the vote, with much of his support coming from people dissatisfied with Lincoln.

Arkansas political strategists say it is not clear whether the Morrison voters will show up for the June 8 runoff and if they do, whether they will back Lincoln or Halter, a liberal.

Morrison has declined to endorse either candidate.

"The prevailing wisdom now is that a lot of those D.C. Morrison voters are unlikely to come out for a Democratic primary runoff," said Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas. "Losing a lot of those voters means you lose a lot of your protest vote and that would seem to advantage Lincoln."

But turnout overall could be abysmally low, with perhaps as few as 55,000 voters showing up at the polls, according to some estimates. Political strategists believe that will benefit Halter.

"Halter's support has been primarily among hard-core liberals, union members and dissatisfied Democrats, and if turnout is low you have to believe those people are going to show up and vote against Blanche Lincoln," said longtime Arkansas political strategist Bill Vickery.

Another factor in the race is former President Clinton, who served three terms as Arkansas governor. Both candidates are using him to try to boost their image with voters.

In campaign ads and literature, Halter touts his tenure in the Clinton administration, where he served as a top aide and later as deputy Social Security administrator.

But Clinton has thrown his support behind Lincoln, whom he endorsed long before Halter jumped into the race. Clinton appeared in at a rally with Lincoln last Friday at a predominantly black college, helping Lincoln launch a "Countdown to Victory" tour across Arkansas.

The winner will face off against Rep. John Boozman, who leads both candidates by double digits in polls.

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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