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Asa in the Hole?

Hutchinson’s Trips Home Fuel Speculation

Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), the undersecretary of Homeland Security for border and transportation security, is scheduled to make a handful of appearances in the Razorback State over the next month, fueling speculation that he may be weighing a challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D).

Hutchinson was expected to tour the Pine Bluff Arsenal, a military manufacturing facility, on Saturday after announcing more than $11 million in federal dollars to further the implementation of its domestic preparedness program. Lincoln was not invited to that event, according to a knowledgeable Democratic source. Later in the day, Hutchinson planned to travel to Little Rock to meet with homeland security officials at the state capitol. On Sunday, Hutchinson will speak at the University of Arkansas.

Hutchinson will participate in a transportation summit Monday in Fayetteville along with Rep. John Boozman (R), who replaced Hutchinson in the House, and Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.).

Hutchinson represented the state’s 3rd district from 1996 until August 2001, when he resigned to become the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Last month Hutchinson was named to his new post at the Department of Homeland Security.

“I personally asked him to come down,” said Boozman. When asked whether Hutchinson’s trip to the state meant that he was considering a Senate run, Boozman said: “Everything I understand is that he is happy in his job.”

Hutchinson will return to the state May 1 to serve as the keynote speaker at the Arkansas Red Mass, an annual gathering of judges, lawyers and law-enforcement officials in Little Rock.

“He is 100 percent immersed in trying to set up the new department,” said spokesman Dennis Murphy.

Some Democrats expressed skepticism that Hutchinson’s trips to the state were solely for official business.

“I would question whether Arkansas would be the center of the universe for homeland security,” said Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.).

Regardless of Hutchinson’s plans, his presence in his home state has excited some Republicans about the prospect of his candidacy.

“He would be very competitive,” said Mitchell Lowe, executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party.

Hutchinson is one of many Bush administration officials rumored to be considering campaigns in 2004 and beyond.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez has been mentioned as a potential candidate for Senate in Florida this cycle or for Sunshine State governor in 2006. Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels is expected to run for Indiana governor next year. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is seen as a possible California gubernatorial candidate in 2006.

To this point, Republicans have focused their Arkansas recruiting efforts on Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has said he will not begin considering the race until the legislative session closes later this month.

Huckabee is still the primary focus of national Republicans’ recruiting efforts because of his past interest in a Senate bid, as well as his close relationship with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.).

In 1992, Huckabee, then a Baptist minister, challenged Sen. Dale Bumpers (D), losing that race 60 percent to 40 percent.

He was preparing for another race in 1996 for the seat of retiring Sen. David Pryor (D) when Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (D) resigned from office amid scandal. Huckabee, the sitting lieutenant governor, assumed the governor’s office.

That 1996 race was won by Tim Hutchinson (R), Asa’s older brother, who was subsequently defeated in the last cycle by Mark Pryor (D). Lincoln claimed Bumpers’ open seat when he decided to retire in 1998.

Allen’s personal connections to Huckabee also give Republicans reason to believe they can convince him to run again.

Allen and Huckabee grew to be friends while both served as governors. Prior to defeating Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) in 2002, Allen was governor of the commonwealth from 1993 to 1997.

Former state Sen. Gunner DeLay, a distant cousin of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), is mentioned as a possible fallback candidate if Huckabee and Hutchinson both decide not to run.

Gunner DeLay sought the vacant 3rd district seat, losing in a special-election runoff to Boozman.

Even as Huckabee ponders, Democrats moved quickly to knock down the idea that Hutchinson would be a strong candidate.

Berry questioned whether Hutchinson’s five years spent representing the northwest Arkansas 3rd district would translate into broad appeal statewide.

“Northwest and southeast Arkansas aren’t very far geographically, but politically it’s light years,” said Berry. “I would be very surprised if his name recognition wasn’t really low in the 1st and 4th district.”

Berry, who has held the 1st since Lincoln left the House in 1996, said he has never tested Asa Hutchinson’s name in any of his campaign polling.

Lowe, the Arkansas Republican executive director, disagreed with Berry’s assessment.

“[Hutchinson] and the governor are the two [Republicans] that have the name identification and the ability to raise money,” he said.

Hutchinson has kept his House campaign account open and ended 2002 with $177,000 on hand.

Huckabee raised $2.7 million in his successful re-election race in 2002; when he ran against Bumpers he raised just over $900,000.

Lincoln is a proven fundraiser in her own right. She raised and spent more than $3 million in her 1998 race; in the final six months of 2002, Lincoln brought in $337,000 and banked $667,000.

Democrats believe that whoever emerges as Lincoln’s GOP opponent will have a tough time attacking her ideological positioning, which places her near the center of the Senate.

“She has proven to be very effective up here as a moderate to conservative Democrat,” said Pryor. “People back home understand that.”

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