Related topics

Marital Twists May Hurt Ark. Senator

October 19, 2002

%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:; AUDIO:%)

VAN BUREN, Ark. (AP) _ Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson’s re-election hopes and his party’s drive to recapture Senate control may rest on whether conservative Arkansans like Sarah Irwin decide to vote.

The 18-year-old high school student should be an avid Hutchinson supporter, but she says she may sit out Election Day.

The firm anti-abortion stance and other socially conservative positions of Hutchinson, a former minister, appeal strongly to her, and to the many Arkansas voters who identify themselves as Christian conservatives.

But his bid for a second term comes after he divorced his wife of 29 years and married a former Senate aide. He calls the divorce ``the greatest failing of my life″ and says he has accepted God’s forgiveness. Yet supporters say the episode will cost him votes in a contest that polls have shown as basically even for months.

``I think that tears down his moral value,″ Irwin said last week at a Wal-Mart store in the western Arkansas town of Van Buren.

At stake Nov. 5 is control of the Senate, where Democrats hold a 50-49 majority plus a Democratic-leaning independent. Democrats consider Hutchinson, Arkansas’ first GOP senator elected by popular vote, the most vulnerable Senate Republican.

Adding to Hutchinson’s challenge are the weak economy, the history of parties holding the White House losing congressional seats in midterm elections, and the last name of his Democratic opponent.

That would be Mark Pryor, 39, state attorney general and son of David Pryor, an Arkansas icon after a long career as congressman, governor and senator.

``He’s a great role model,″ Mark Pryor says of his father.

He is more than that for the candidate, who Democrats agree lacks his father’s natural touch with voters. David Pryor is a key campaign cog, appearing in television ads, handing out yard signs and attending events.

``I judged the ugly dog contest in Malvern,″ he says.

The campaign also unabashedly uses the father’s old emblem: A red, white and blue Arkansas emblazoned with one name _ PRYOR _ and the father’s slogan, ``Arkansas Comes First.″

The impact of Hutchinson’s marital status and Pryor’s lineage are amplified in this state of 2.7 million, where politics is intensely personal and nearly everyone calls both men by their first names.

``Arkansas politics, because we’re such a cozy little state, has long been about relationships,″ said Janine Parry, a University of Arkansas political scientist.

Though leaning Democratic, Arkansans are mostly moderate _ and fiercely independent. Take 1968, when the state went for conservative presidential candidate George Wallace, liberal Democratic Sen. J. William Fulbright and moderate GOP Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.

Knowing that, the two parties and their allies are expected to pump $20 million into the race, a lot where a 30-second television ad in the state’s biggest market _ Little Rock _ might cost $1,300.

Hutchinson has emphasized his conservative views on tax cuts, abortion and school prayer, his Senate experience, and the military and public works projects he has brought home.

More animated than Pryor though 14 years older, Hutchinson told a GOP rally last week in Fort Smith that the race is about controlling the Senate so ``Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) isn’t the majority leader any more.″

He also told the crowd, ``We’ve got to get our troops fired up.″ But later, GOP activist Annette Gean quietly tells him, ``We can’t get this 3rd district fired up for anybody,″ referring to the conservative northwestern corner of Arkansas that Hutchinson _ followed by brother Asa _ represented in the House.

Hutchinson ads say Pryor has a vague position on abortion, voted to boost taxes while in the Arkansas House and took contributions from a group Hutchinson says opposes the Patriot missile, a model of which is built in Arkansas. That group, Council for a Livable World, says it only opposes nuclear-armed Patriots.

Pryor, pudgier than his father but with his soft-spoken style, downplays his party identity. He keeps Democratic issues like the flagging economy and soaring prescription drug costs at his campaign’s forefront, yet embraces President Bush’s confrontation with terrorists and supports capital gains tax cuts that many Democrats oppose.

``Unlike some Democrats in Washington, I believe in strengthening the military,″ begins one ad in which Pryor wears a camouflage hunting outfit, totes a hunting rifle and pledges to protect gun owners’ rights.

Another ad shows Pryor holding the Bible. And commercials attacking Hutchinson votes on education, Social Security and other issues end with, ``He’s changed″ _ seen by many as a poke at his rival’s remarriage.

Conspicuously quiet has been former President Clinton, an Arkansan who still excites Democrats and infuriates Republicans. Pryor skipped one Clinton Arkansas appearance and says he has no plans to invite him back, though Clinton is expected to return to energize the Democrats’ black voters.

Hutchinson campaigns often in his old House district, which he must carry heavily to win statewide. Some think that will work.

``He represents family values, and you’d like to think people who espouse that can get over the speed bumps,″ said Larry Cox, director of the conservative Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council.

Others say Hutchinson has more work to do with conservative Christians.

``They’re saying he’s a hypocrite,″ said Betsy Hagan, president of the conservative Eagle Forum of Arkansas. ``He’s got to have the base energized to pull this off, and that’s the hill he’s got to climb.″

Update hourly