LITTLE ROCK, Ark.- Trailing GOP challenger Rep. John Boozman by double digits in most polls, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln failed to score a decisive victory in the candidates' high-noon debate showdown at the Peabody Hotel on Friday.
Instead, Lincoln's two attempts to bloody Boozman, when the candidates were allowed to question each other directly, appeared to backfire. In one instance, Lincoln, who is seeking a third term, accused the five-term congressman of voting to protect the rights of fathers who have raped their own daughters by allowing them to sue the doctors who performed abortions in those cases.
"Do you believe that the majority of Arkansans agree with your stance that the rights of rapists take place over the rights of women they've assaulted?" Lincoln asked pointedly. "I really don't know what you're talking about," Boozman shot back, before defending his staunchly pro-life voting record in the House. He then asked the senator for more information. "Well, it's in your record," she said. "Well, why don't you elaborate?" Boozman persisted. "It is a bill," Lincoln began, "that provides -" at which point Boozman cut her off. "What bill are you talking about?" "I don't have the number with me," Lincoln admitted, before promising to supply the information later.
At another point, Lincoln asked Boozman to justify his trips to nearly fifty foreign countries over the last decade, including visits to eleven nations since the economy went sour. "We are in dire economic times right now," the senator said, adding she and others would be "curious to know...how you justify your continuing frequent travel...at a time when Arkansas families are hurting and really have to tighten their belts."
"Well, I have traveled a lot," the congressman replied, not missing a beat. "I've been to Iraq, I think, eight or nine times; I think Afghanistan, four times. I do that to go and pat our troops on the back and tell them that they're doing a great job." He added that a number of other countries on the list - such as Germany, Kuwait, or Pakistan- are frequently visited by members of Congress who visit war zones, either as stopovers or to collect information relevant to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By contrast, when Boozman asked Lincoln whether, "knowing as you do now that there's almost universal discontent, universal opposition" to the president's health care reform package, she would still cast "the deciding vote" for the measure, the senator's answer consumed nearly two-and-a-half minutes - and did not contain a direct "yes" or "no" in reply to Boozman's query. Streamed live online by the local Fox 16 channel and Fox News Channel, the debate featured the two candidates seated on a stage about ten feet apart from each other, separated by standing moderator Roby Brock, and extended well beyond the allotted one hour. It will be aired on local television this weekend.
Lincoln, the youngest woman elected to the Senate and its first Arkansan to chair the Agriculture Committee, repeatedly reminded listeners of her ability to deliver to the state. "I make no excuses," she said, "for fighting on behalf of farmers. 270,000 jobs in this state are associated with agriculture, [pumping] $16 billion dollars into our economy, $9 billion in wages and salaries. I think it's a critical part of our economy and I think it's worth fighting for in this job."
In manner, Lincoln appeared peppier, occasionally glancing at notes to reel off facts and figures and talking points with great fluidity, like a well prepared high school debater. At various points, she slipped into her litanies allegations that Boozman supports the privatization of Social Security and Medicare, and that he failed to deliver to his district any money from a recent transportation bill.
For his part, Boozman sometimes appeared uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the debate format, pausing to ask procedural questions of the moderator. And the congressman often responded to both panelists' questions and Lincoln's provocations with an unsmiling, sometimes plodding, demeanor that suggested the weariness of a no-nonsense accountant. In his opening remarks, Boozman called Lincoln "a good friend" and someone he admires. Then he added: "We can't afford her anymore. When push comes to shove, 95 percent of the time, she's voted with the Obama administration."
At his most animated, Boozman played up his Razorback gridiron days and cast himself as the more responsible steward of taxpayers' dollars and the better friend to Arkansas entrepreneurs. "In going to the Senate, I'm going to go there not to raise taxes; I'm going to go there to reduce our spending," he said. "That's the problem that we have. And the idea that we can tax and spend and borrow our way to prosperity -- I think that's the fundamental difference that I have with Senator Lincoln, and I have with the administration."
Prior to the debate, Professor Arthur English of the University of Arkansas had told Fox News that even Lincoln's internal polling had found her trailing Boozman by ten to fifteen percentage points. In one area, however, the embattled Democrat - who survived a bruising primary battle in the spring, but is predicted to lose in the general election by most prominent political handicappers - enjoys a four-to-one edge over her GOP challenger: money. According to documents filed by both campaigns with federal election offices, at the end of June Lincoln had nearly $1.9 million in cash on hand, while Boozman boasted less than $500,000.
Fox News' Kelly Burke contributed to this report.
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).