Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

OPINION>> Win Paul vs. Asa

BY ERNIE DUMAS

For the first time in 16 years, Arkansas seems guaranteed of a real primary contest for governor in 2006 and, as it was in 1990, it will be between Republicans. More than a year before the traditional filing period, Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and Asa Hutchinson announced that they would seek the Republican nomination.

Primary contests for governor once were the province of the Democratic Party, but there has not been a real challenge in the Democratic primary since 1982, when Bill Clinton defeated Jim Guy Tucker and Joe Purcell, two of the partyís biggest vote-getters, to begin his comeback. In the five elections since then, the Democratic nominee was anointed long before the filing began.

This time, Attorney General Mike Beebe is the presumptive nominee, although he has done nothing more than merely hint that he would run.

It is easy to affix epochal meaning to the circumstances. One theory: The Republican Party has finally matured and replaced the Democrats as the party with energy, and the Democratic Party has run out of promising political figures.

Here is a notion that is at least as persuasive: It is the Republican Party that faces a crisis, a struggle for its soul. While some Democrats think their party would be better off and its nominee stronger if there were a vigorous primary fight for the nomination, they should not envy the GOP the dilemma it faces in Hutchinson and Rockefeller.

The Republicans had what they thought was an embarrassment of riches in 1990, when Sheffield Nelson, the handsome gas company executive, and U. S. Rep. Tommy Robinson both switched parties to run for governor, but it turned out to be merely an embarrassment.

The party, helped by a crossover vote by Democrats, picked Nelson, and Gov. Bill Clinton crushed him in the general election when details of the Arkoma gas scandal dribbled out, with Robinsonís assistance. Nelson had helped his friend Jerry Jones collect a fortune and the Dallas Cowboys franchise at the expense of Arkansas natural gas customers.

The party recovered quickly from the bitter personal rivalry that betrayed it in 1990. While the personal animosity may be absent in the Rockefeller-Hutchinson race, at least for now, the divisions may be visceral and subterranean, and even harder to turn into victory.

Hutchinson, who resigned as deputy secretary for Homeland Security after he was twice turned down by President Bush for the top job, has made two statewide races ó for the Senate in 1986 and for attorney general in 1990 ó and suffered sizable defeats both times. Rockefeller won both his statewide races. His moderate image, the legacy of good will from his fatherís rising historical standing and his strength among traditionally Democratic-voting African-Americans stands him in good stead in a statewide contest.

All of those advantages are virtually useless to Rockefeller in a Republican primary with Hutchinson.

Unless there is a sea change in voting habits in 2006, the primary will be largely decided in three northwest Arkansas counties ó Benton, Sebastian and Washington ó where Hutchinson spent his youth and early political career and which elected him to Con-gress three times in the late 1990s.

It also is the seat of a Republican ideology that Rockefellerís daddy marginalized 40 years ago: fiercely against taxes and social action, abortion, immigrants, public services for the poor and for a closer alliance of government and gospel.
Rockefellerís strengths (except his wealth, maybe) will not help him there.

If he is to win many votes there, Rockefeller may have to repudiate much of his fatherís legacy, of which he almost certainly will be reminded: higher taxes especially on the wealthy, opposition to the death penalty, authorship of the state minimum wage, greater spending on public education, government-protected rights for all minorities and an end to bigotry in all its forms.
In his first test, in the days after his announcement, Rockefeller said he was reversing his position on abortion. He now favors the government banning all abortions except when the life or health of the mother is imperiled, still slightly to the left of Hutchinson.

In a meeting with Benton County people not long ago, Rockefeller said rich people were overtaxed. (His daddy in 1969 would have had them paying a marginal rate of 12 percent, not 5, in state income taxes.) With every capitulation, Rockefeller moves his party with him further from the center of gravity, where the current governor successfully has made his home.
After much of that, the party may find its chances growing slimmer.

The qualities that make Hutchinson the favorite in the Republican primary make him a distinct underdog against Beebe, or whoever, in the general election. And Hutchinsonís indecision about whether he is an Arkansan is not his major problem.
He seems to run afoul of the Constitutionís residency requirement to be governor because he moved his voter registration to Virginia in 2002 after joining the Bush administration.

The courts have been expansive in interpreting residency requirements.

Home is where the heart is, and regardless of where a person lives the courts have looked for expressions of intent. One is the voting home. Why Hutchinson would have moved his vote to Virginia is a mystery. Men usually do it to avoid the state personal income tax when they have a multimillion-dollar windfall. But challenging Hutchinsonís standing to run wonít be legally or politically winnable.

No, his problem is not where but how he lives.

He chose to cash in on his government service in the time-honored way, joining a Washington law firm ó not to practice law but to exploit his connections with the admi-nistration to steer corporate clients to government contracts.

Meantime, Hutchinson's protege Ron Fields, the former Fort Smith prosecutor, is on a forced leave of absence from his job at Homeland Security while the FBI investigates his alleged drug dealing and a conspiracy to murder a woman. That could be more serious than having a tractor run over a gravestone, the issue that defeated the elder Winthrop Rockefeller in his first race for governor in 1964.

Then there is the matter of Hutchinson trying to remove fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton from the presidency. As a prosecutor of Clinton before the Senate, Hutchinson handled some of the dirtier aspects of the Republican campaign to convict the president of high crimes and misdemeanors over his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

Hutchinsonís good standing as a Clinton hater will help in the primary fight in northwest Arkansas but heíll need a cleaner resume in the general election.