Lincoln, Drowning in Polls, Looks to Debate for Lifeline

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.-- "We have turned a corner and people are listening," declared Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., flanked by former President Bill Clinton at an event here celebrating her first year as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "Arkansans are not quitters and neither am I!"

Throughout a bruising Democratic primary and run-off, from which she emerged battered but victorious, and now in the general election season, which finds her badly trailing her Republican opponent in the polls, Lincoln has returned time and again to those three themes: her portrayal of herself as the quintessential Arkansan, her endorsement by the state's most famous son, and her dogged determination to soldier on.

Yet beyond her sheer endurance, there is little that Lincoln, in her quest for a third term, can show for that strategy. A compilation of polls by the website shows that the Republican nominee, five-term Congressman John Boozman, has led comfortably in all eighteen of the surveys that have, since the start of the year, posited a Lincoln-Boozman matchup.

The average lead for Boozman, when all eighteen of these polls are considered, exceeds twenty-eight percent. The closest Lincoln has come to drawing even with Boozman was in a Rasmussen Reports poll in March, when she trailed by nine points; that same organization's most recent survey, taken in mid-August, showed Boozman ahead by thirty-eight points.

"There's a lot of anger out there," said Arthur English, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. "President Obama did not do well down here as a candidate....The national economy is not good. Unemployment seems to be unchanged, and the voters are angry because of that."

"I know some internal polls are showing her maybe ten to fifteen points behind," English added, "so it's within reach, conceivably. But it's still an uphill battle [for Lincoln] at this particular point."

Friday's noontime debate between the two, to be held at the Peabody Hotel and streamed live online by the local Fox 16 channel, will mark the second time Lincoln has shared the same stage with Boozman, a former optometrist and cattle rancher - and perhaps the embattled senator's last significant opportunity to close the polling gap between them. A panel of journalists will ask the first round of questions; then the two candidates will be permitted to pose questions directly to each other, with rebuttals also allowed.

Boozman's campaign did not return a request for comment. But Alice Stewart, senior communications advisor for the state GOP, issued a statement saying it would be impossible to preview the debate because "we don't know which Blanche will show up -- Arkansas Blanche or Washington Blanche."

In portraying Lincoln as two-faced, and seizing on her first name for purposes of mockery, Boozman's campaign is following the precedent set by Arkansas' lieutenant governor, Bill Halter, who was Lincoln's main rival during the hard-hitting primary battle that ended with Lincoln's runoff victory on June 8. Halter, a former chief of the Social Security Administration under President Clinton, derisively nicknamed the incumbent "Bailout Blanche," in reference to her vote in support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.

Because Lincoln opposed the inclusion of a public, or government-run, option in this year's health care legislation, major labor unions and liberal advocacy groups like threw their support behind Halter - and pumped an estimated $10 million into the effort to defeat Lincoln. But the senator prevailed on the strength of the former president's endorsement, her spirited denunciations of "outside groups" telling Arkansans what to think, and her claims to have delivered for the state through her perch on the Agriculture Committee.

"You have a sitting Republican congressman who is very conservative, who has supported the Republican agenda right down the line," Professor English said, "and then you have Senator Lincoln, who's not exactly been a disciplined follower of President Obama, but has certainly, on certain votes, been with him."

The Lincoln campaign has accused Boozman of wanting to privatize Social Security; the Boozman campaign cites Lincoln's vote for the Obama stimulus package as worsening the misery of the state's 100,000 unemployed residents.

In his appearance in downtown Little Rock Wednesday, former President Clinton urged Democrats to view Lincoln's race as winnable -- despite the fact that virtually all prominent political analysts currently rate her seat as likely, on Election Day, to wind up in the GOP column.

"I know I'm preaching to the saved tonight," Mr. Clinton told an enthusiastic roomful of Lincoln supporters. "But we got a hard race, a race we can win!"

"If this election is about apathy and anger and amnesia, we're all toast, and America will play a grievous price. But if we can just get people to take a deep breath and own their anger, but ask the right question - which is, ‘What are we going to do now and who is more likely to do it?' - then Blanche Lincoln will win this thing going away."

For her part, Lincoln - the youngest woman ever elected to the Senate and the first Arkansan to chair the Agriculture Committee - seems to recognize the anger Professor English discerned, and also to understand the rhetorical appeal in her oft-utilized first name.

"Do not get rid of the chairman of the Agriculture Committee!" she thundered in her remarks at the event with former President Clinton. "Be mad at Blanche for whatever reason, but don't lose the opportunity to use that committee and that independent voice to produce a pipeline of jobs for this state."

Fox News' Kelly Burke contributed to this report.

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AP/Blanche Lincoln File photo