The Family Business

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The skies may be quiet over Baghdad, but for the citizens of Arkansas the air war has already begun. Each night, TV viewers are bombarded by ads from the state's two Senate candidates, Democrat Mark Pryor and the incumbent, Republican Tim Hutchinson. Since airtime can be bought relatively cheaply in this poor, rural state, local folks are seeing more political ads this year than just about anyone elsewhere. Democrats rap Hutchinson on corporate responsibility. Republicans call Pryor a tax raiser. And on it goes. Each side is pouring millions into the race; President Bush has been here four times to bolster first-term Hutchinson. The contest is too close to call.

Both candidates come from prominent political families. Pryor's father David was a beloved Senator, who remains so popular that even Hutchinson calls him a "beautiful model for being kind and gentlemanly in a way that Arkansans appreciate." Mark Pryor, for his part, snarls that "there are not many similarities between Tim Hutchinson and David Pryor." Hutchinson's brother Asa was a popular Congressman and now heads Bush's Drug Enforcement Administration.

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Hutchinson's personal life has raised eyebrows. The Baptist minister left his wife in 1999. Within a year he had married a younger former staff member. The issue will probably not be decisive — Bill Clinton's Arkansas is not unfamiliar with political peccadilloes — but it is not helping Hutchinson, even as he sounds the familiar refrain that voters should judge him on the totality of his career.

Pryor has managed to neutralize Iraq as an issue, saying he supports the President. That lets him concentrate on pocketbook issues in a state that, like much of the country, is feeling some pain. "The economy bothers me," says waitress Melissa Hart, as she serves up a foot-long chili dog at Town Pump, a Little Rock suds-and-sandwich shop. "It is sucking. And we need some change." That kind of attitude puts Hutchinson in a bind. Pryor notes, for instance, that the Republican has repeatedly voted against raising the minimum wage. Hutchinson counters that expanding the earned-income tax credit would be a better way to help the working poor, but he acknowledges that it's a complex argument: "Voters don't want to hear an economics lesson." If he can't find a better way to explain why he's the model for economic change, Hutchinson, the first g.o.p. Senator from Arkansas in more than 100 years, may be the last for some time.