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Hutchinson Set to Run if Asked

Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) has signaled to the White House that he will challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) if asked, knowledgeable GOP sources said Tuesday.

The Bush White House has shown a willingness to involve itself in key Senate races over the past two cycles in order to hand-select the strongest candidate, and Hutchinson, the undersecretary of Homeland Security for border and transportation security, would fill a void for the GOP in Arkansas. Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) has not made a decision on the race.

In 2002, now-Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) were both tapped as the favorites of the White House political operation and went on to win Democratic-held seats. Former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) was likewise convinced to run for Senate rather than governor by President Bush, but lost narrowly to Sen. Tim Johnson (D).

Frustrated by an inability to move its agenda through the Senate quickly, the White House has already played an influential role in recruiting for the 2004 cycle, urging Reps. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) to make Senate bids against Democratic incumbents.

Hutchinson has spoken with state party officials about the race in recent days, who sounded a more cautious note about his future plans.

State party Executive Director Mitchell Lowe said that Hutchinson is “still in a decision-making mode and is trying to weigh all of the factors.”

Hutchinson is set to speak to the Arkansas Red Mass, an annual gathering of judges, lawyers and law-enforcement officials in Little Rock, on Thursday. He also made a three-day trip to the state in mid-April.

Under the Hatch Act, if Hutchinson forms an exploratory committee or announces his intention to run for the Senate, he must immediately resign his post at Homeland Security.

Hutchinson spokesman Dennis Murphy said that his boss is “100 percent focused on standing up a new department of government that is 100 days old.”

The increasing momentum behind a Hutchinson candidacy comes as Huckabee finds himself embroiled in a protracted fight with the Democratic-controlled state Legislature over the state budget.

The legislative session closed April 16, and Huckabee will call a special session to try to hammer out a budget agreement starting early next month.

Huckabee has long said he will not begin to think seriously about a potential Senate candidacy until his legislative work is done.

“Huckabee in theory had first dibs on the seat,” claimed Arkansas Democratic Party Executive Director Michael Cook. “If the White House or [Karl] Rove were to ask Asa to run that might kick up the dust in the Republican Party.”

National Republicans cautioned that Huckabee has not yet shut the door on a bid. Sources say his close relationship with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) could influence Huckabee’s decision (they served together in the Republican Governors Association).

Both Hutchinson and Huckabee have made unsuccessful Senate bids in the past.

Hutchinson, then a U.S. attorney, challenged Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) in 1986, losing badly, 62 percent to 38 percent, in a horrible year nationally for Senate Republicans.

Huckabee made his own run for the Senate six years later, losing to Bumpers by a slightly more respectable 60 percent to 40 percent as native son Bill Clinton (D) won the White House and carried the state by 18 points. In 1996, Huckabee, who was serving as lieutenant governor, was gearing up for a second race for the seat of retiring Sen. David Pryor (D) when Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (D) resigned amid scandal and Huckabee ascended to the governor’s office.

Huckabee’s promotion caused a political ripple effect as Rep. Tim Hutchinson (R) jumped into the Senate race, which he won, and his younger brother, Asa, ran and won the 3rd district race.

Asa Hutchinson held the northwest Arkansas seat from 1996 until August 2001, when he resigned to become the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. In March he was named to his new post at the Department of Homeland Security.

Democrats immediately seized on Hutchinson’s varied resume to paint him as a political opportunist.

“What are Mr. Hutchinson’s real priorities?” asked Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse. “Are they homeland security or politics at all costs?”

The prospect of a Hutchinson candidacy has sparked an aggressive response from Lincoln’s camp.

Lincoln Chief of Staff Steve Patterson sent an e-mail to supporters late last week declaring that “Asa Hutchinson will announce plans within a week to oppose Senator Lincoln in 2004;” the e-mail also alleged that Hutchinson had opened a Senate campaign account with the Federal Election Commission to raise money for a potential bid.

Lincoln’s office acknowledged that a mistake had been made in regards to their claims about the Hutchinson campaign committee, which was a remnant from his 1986 bid.

Hutchinson has kept his House campaign account active, however, and ended March with $177,000 on hand.

Despite the nervousness of Lincoln loyalists, the freshman Senator has done little to give potential opponents an opening.

She raised $674,000 in the first three months of 2003, banking $1.2 million at the end of March. Lincoln spent better than $3 million to win Bumpers’ open seat in 1998.

Her voting record has also placed her near the center of the Senate, a good place from which to run for re-election in a state where George W. Bush carried a 5 percent margin of victory in the 2000 presidential race but Democrats control virtually every statewide office but governor and hold majorities in the state Legislature.

Hewing closely to that centrist profile, then-state Attorney General Mark Pryor (D) toppled Tim Hutchinson in 2002, although that outcome appeared to hinge more on Hutchinson’s divorce and subsequent remarriage to a former staffer than the ideologies of the two candidates.

“We have a strong, conservative to moderate incumbent Senator in Blanche Lincoln who can easily exploit the bloodletting that is sure to ensue in the Republican Party over this one,” said one Democratic strategist.

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