"Everybody in Arkansas is running against Obama," Rutherford grimaces. "Got a pothole? Well, that's Obama's fault."
Governor: Lobbyist vs. Liberal
On the 20th floor of a downtown high-rise, my back is to Asa Hutchinson and a small crowd of bankers. I'm looking across the tops of buildings to the 10-year-old Clinton library. Hutchinson, the former impeachment prosecutor, has his eyes on something else. "If the election were held today," the GOP gubernatorial candidate tells potential donors, "I would win."
He's right. While polls show Cotton trailing Pryor by a few points, Hutchinson leads former Democratic Rep. Mike Ross. But, like the Senate campaign, this race could go back and forth and end a few votes apart.
Hutchinson's biggest advantage so far is name recognition, the benefit of three statewide races. Of course, he lost all three — and GOP operatives in the state wonder if he's got his act together. Hutchinson says he does, and points to an impressive resume: Former congressman, former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and one of the first division chiefs at the Department of Homeland Security.
Hutchinson is casting Ross as an Obama loyalist and political opportunist who is too liberal for Arkansas. Over dinner one night, Hutchinson ran through a list of Ross's political sins, paused briefly to order the blackened salmon, and said, "He's Obama's guy."
Don't underestimate Ross. First, he has raised significantly more money than Hutchison, wisely saving a pile of it to go negative after this weeks' primaries. Second, he oozes ambition and is one of the slipperiest candidates I've ever interviewed (and, well, I covered Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Washington).
For instance, Ross relies on a legislative loophole to refute Hutchinson's charge that he supported Obamacare. At the same time, he attacks Hutchinson for waffling on the state's so-called private option, a popular and successful Medicaid expansion plan fashioned from Obamacare by Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe.
In other words, Ross opposes Obamacare when he's not for it. Ross wants voters to associate him with the popular and term-limited Beebe, a moderate Democrat, but he risks earning the moniker stuck to Clinton in this state, "Slick."
"I'm just a country boy from Prescott," Ross tells me at his campaign headquarters. This I learned years ago: Whenever a Southern politician refers to himself as a "country boy," put one hand on your wallet and ball the other in a fist. Country boys like street fights.
"Asa spent most of his time in the private sector lobbying for companies that shipped jobs overseas," Ross says.
I said that sounds like a TV ad.
Ross smirks, "Not yet."
2016: Hillary Clinton
If one person told me, a dozen told me: Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016 and, if Ross or Pryor win this November, she will compete for Arkansas.