Can Blanche Lincoln Survive a Democratic Challenge?

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Harry Hamburg / AP

Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln

A good headline for 2010 might go like this: "Voters Tell Congress: Welcome to Unemployment."

Incumbents are easy to spot at debates this year — they're the ones with bags over their heads. Nude modeling on the résumé? No problem, as Scott Brown of Massachusetts proved. The fatal scandal is Washington experience. The public's opinion of Congress is at its lowest level in at least 25 years, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. For Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah, that translated into a third-place finish at his state's GOP convention, shutting him out of the primary. Senate majority leader Harry Reid is flailing in Nevada; Senator Arlen Specter appears to be drowning in Pennsylvania; House incumbents are bracing for a tidal wave, with Wisconsin Democrat David Obey, third in seniority, only the latest to run up the white flag of retirement.

In Arkansas, the two-term Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln is struggling to survive a well-funded primary challenge so that she can limp into the general election as wounded as a three-legged underdog. Moderation is Lincoln's trademark, but this year she has outdone herself at bringing right and left together: both sides want to get rid of her.

TIME caught up with Lincoln during a recent campaign trip to Northwest Arkansas, the booming Ozarks region that is home to Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt trucking. She was coming off two widely criticized debate performances and struggling to find her voice in a bitter campaign against Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter as the May 18 Democratic primary approached. Gamely, she suggests that the anti-incumbent surge might recede in time to rescue her re-election hopes. "This cycle started so early," she says. "We started putting our campaign together in January of 2009. At some point I think that people have to calm down a little and say, We need someone who looks for common ground to move forward."

But in Arkansas, unemployment has been rising, not falling, in recent months and current events — Europe panic, terror plots, the oil spill, stocks back on the roller coaster — haven't been conducive to calm. If Lincoln, 49, manages to save her seat, it will be thanks to a combination of bare-knuckles brawling and political jujitsu, as she touts her insider's ability to stick up for outsiders.

In September, Lincoln became the first woman and the first Arkansas Senator to head the Agriculture Committee, and she is trying to make sure that voters understand the cost of dumping her. Agriculture is a quarter of the razorback economy, and the Ag Committee controls programs, such as school nutrition and food stamps, that mean a lot to city dwellers as well. She planted her flag in the anti–Wall Street crusade rather dramatically last month, leveraging the committee's authority over the commodities market to advance a provision to regulate trading by commercial banks in risky derivatives.

At the same time, she has been in a firefight with Halter, 49, a former Clinton Administration official and Rhodes scholar whom Lincoln dubbed "Dollar Bill" to highlight his service on several corporate boards. Perhaps the lowest moment of an all-around dispiriting campaign came when a vaguely named group of undisclosed origins ran an anti-Halter ad featuring actors speaking in Indian accents thanking him for outsourcing jobs. Lincoln condemned the ad, but veteran columnist John Brummett has pronounced her the "guiltier party" in a campaign he calls "a classic case study in the decline of modern political discourse."

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