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Candidates seek salvation from swing voters

Arkansas is one of the key states that will determine whether the U.S. Senate remains in the hands of Democrats.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2002


Arkansas is one of the key states that will determine whether the U.S. Senate remains in the hands of Democrats.

FORT SMITH, Ark. -- The worshipers paced the sanctuary of the Fort Smith Christian Center, their hands aloft, mumbling incantations against the devil. "I curse blindness! Deafness! Arthritis! I come against every foul spirit!" the preacher yelled into his microphone.

Male and female, young and old, black and white -- these devotees of Dr. Joseph Martin's lunch-hour "Miracle Explosion" seminar are also something that national GOP leaders hope will be the party's salvation. They are firm supporters of Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson's re-election campaign.

Like many in Arkansas' important religious conservative voting bloc, the worshipers who streamed out of this Pentecostal service last Tuesday say they have forgiven the Baptist minister-turned-politician for his 1999 divorce from his wife of nearly 29 years and marriage to a younger former aide.

"Who can judge the circumstances? Only God and his family," 61-year-old Donny Kelly said of the incumbent's widely publicized personal turmoil.

Still, Arkansas' first Republican senator since Reconstruction is in trouble.

A recent poll showed Hutchinson, 53, in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Mark Pryor.

Pryor, 39, is the son of the state's popular former governor and senator, David Pryor. The Zogby International poll commissioned by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette showed Pryor with 45.4 percent support of voters and Hutchinson with 45.2 percent.

The Arkansas Senate contest is one of at least seven close races around the country in which the outcome could determine whether Democrats retain control of the U.S. Senate. The chamber has 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent.

The race is notable for its strong subtexts of God and family in a state where many remain profoundly embarrassed by native son Bill Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

President Clinton's dalliance led to his 1998 impeachment by the House. The Democratic candidate's father, David Pryor, was a long-time friend and informal adviser of Clinton's, though he was not particularly vocal in Clinton's defense during the sex scandal.

Hutchinson was openly scornful of his fellow Arkansan's moral failings and voted to convict Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice in a Senate trial in which the president ultimately was acquitted.

In a twist, though, Hutchinson now declares himself chastened by the muddle he made of his personal life, while Pryor is pursuing what might be called a "holier than thou" campaign.

The Democrat has run television ads touting his past as a Sunday school teacher. In another ad, he reads a Bible to his two children at bedtime and says, "The most important lessons in life are in this book right here."

The approach appears to be paying off. In the recent poll, 41 percent of Pryor's supporters described themselves as "born again," demonstrating the Democrat's appeal to voters who have a personal relationship with Christ.

Forty-nine percent of Hutchinson voters described themselves as born again, a number the incumbent's supporters acknowledge might have been higher if not for the divorce.

"Many people were disappointed in Dad, a lot of his base," said the senator's 29-year-old son, Timothy Hutchinson Jr.

The senator, a graduate of fundamentalist Bob Jones University, is a past winner of the Christian Coalition's Friend of the Family award and co-founder of a Christian educational academy.

He was challenged in the GOP primary by state Rep. Jim Bob Duggar, who said God had called him to run. He frequently trotted out his 13 children and pregnant wife at campaign stops.

Hutchinson won the primary with 78 percent of the vote, but Duggar's candidacy reflected religious conservatives' dissatisfaction with the incumbent.

Hutchinson apologized for his personal failings, and like the worshipers at the Fort Smith Christian Center, many religious-minded Arkansans have forgiven him, the senator's son said. "Everyone has seen his sincerity."

Pryor has refrained from bringing up Hutchinson's divorce directly. His approach has been more subtle. In an Oct. 14 televised debate with Hutchinson, for example, he closed by thanking his wife, Jill, for "her love and her prayers."

Hutchinson did not mention his new wife, Randi, in the debate. But after the event was over, he jumped from the stage into the audience and, out of the cameras' view, grabbed the blond lawyer's hand.

While Randi Hutchinson has been all but invisible in the senator's campaign, Jill Pryor pops up frequently in her husband's ads.

In one ad, Jill Pryor testifies to her husband's fiscal conservatism. "I love my husband, but he's cheap," she says, as Mark Pryor stresses his conservative Democratic credentials by pledging to fight wasteful government spending and protect Social Security.

Another ad shows Pryor together with his father, whose seat Hutchinson won in 1996 when the senior Pryor retired.

Hutchinson has responded with ads that show him frolicking with his 3-year-old grandson, Jack. The image has infuriated liberals.

"How can any Arkansas voter watch that Hutchinson TV ad with the cute grandson without wondering where Grandma went?" commentator Gene Lyons wrote in the Democrat-Gazette.

The liberal outrage is fueled by the Hutchinson family's prominent role in trying to oust then-President Clinton over the Lewinsky affair.

Former Arkansas Rep. Asa Hutchinson, the senator's brother who now heads the Drug Enforcement Administration, was one of the GOP House impeachment managers who made the case against Clinton in the 1999 Senate trial in which Tim Hutchinson voted to convict.

In an interview, the senator said he sticks by his votes on Clinton because the issue was not the president's sex life, but whether he lied under oath about his affair. At the same time, Hutchinson said his own divorce and remarriage have given him a new perspective.

"I was more judgmental and more sanctimonious before," he said. "Now I'm much more understanding of what people go through in life."

More traditional issues are also getting play in this campaign, but the candidates hold such similar stands that it is often hard to tell them apart.

On Iraq, both Pryor and Hutchinson support President Bush's plan to use military force to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and stop his weapons-building program.

Both candidates are strong backers of the right to bear arms, an important issue in a state where hunting is a major pastime. Hutchinson won the National Rifle Association's endorsement.

And both say they support a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients.

With Pryor running to the right, Hutchinson has tried to chip away at his conservative persona by bringing up the fact that if elected, Pryor will vote to keep South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle as Senate majority leader.

Hutchinson also has hammered Pryor on abortion, accusing him of obscuring his abortion-rights leanings to win votes. In 1998, Pryor described himself as "pro-choice," but now he says, "I don't consider myself either pro-life or pro-choice."

He is personally opposed to abortion, Pryor said in the debate, but added that it is a "very complex" issue that demands a nuanced approach. One thing is clear, though: He doesn't want the endorsement of any liberal feminist groups.

When the abortion-rights group Voters for Choice, founded by activist Gloria Steinem, tried to endorse Pryor, he quickly and firmly declined.

With only two weeks before the Nov. 5 election, the race seems to hinge on the so-called "swing voters" who do not strongly identify with party labels.

Linda Wilkinson is one. Her son owns a hunting-goods store in Fort Smith where Pryor showed up to campaign last Tuesday among the rows of archery bows for sale and the stuffed deer and boars' heads on the walls. She has not decided how to vote.

Hutchinson's NRA endorsement sways her toward the Republican, but she also believes in gun control to stop criminals from otaining firearms, which sways her toward the Democrat.

"And for me, Medicare prescription drug benefits are very important," Wilkinson said. "I have elderly parents, and I'm responsible for their finances."

So how will she vote? "Oh, I don't know yet." While Hutchinson's divorce and remarriage isn't on her mind, she said another family connection is. And it is what, in the end, may cause wavering voters in this historically Democratic state to mark their ballots for Pryor.

"Mark's daddy," Wilkinson said. "I remember. He did such a good job."

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