Arkansas ignores the Monica factor

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The Independent Online
IT IS ALMOST 7pm; the sky is dark but for the gash of a flame- red sunset, and the stragglers are hurrying from their cars into the county agricultural hall on the edge of Lonoke, Arkansas, 20 miles from Little Rock.

The men are in jackets and ties, their wives coiffed in a small-town imitation of Dallas.

Here is middle-aged middle America in the time and state of Bill Clinton, gathered for the annual meeting of their Farm Bureau. The main attraction is the appearance of Arkansas' two candidates for the United States Senate: the Democrat, Blanche Lincoln - 38, bright, enthusiastic - and the Republican, Fay Boozman - a fiftyish, ever so slightly jaded warhorse of local politics.

Mrs Lincoln rushes in late, as is her wont, looking brisk and businesslike in a green suit. Mr Boozman, a member of the state legislature of somewhat owlish and rumpled appearance, is already well into his soft-spoken spiel about why - even though he was busy and wealthy enough as an eye surgeon - he went into politics. "To preserve our American way of life," he said, "as a man of integrity who walks his talk", and because his wife told him to over breakfast.

Despite her relative youth, Mrs Lincoln already has Washington experience. She was one of the youngest female Representatives ever when she was elected to the House in 1992 and re-elected in 1994. Now, perhaps to counter earlier accusations that she is a "bubble-head", she thickens her southern accent, parades her farming lineage, and reels off some local agriculture statistics - a smaller, bouncier Harriet Harman.

Six years ago, then Blanche Lambert, she campaigned for the House as a young, liberated and independent woman. Now, as her opponents are too genteel to say, but continually imply, she has repackaged herself. She is now a "homemaker", wife of Dr Lincoln, mother of twin sons, and she goes by her married name, as is expected in these parts. She talks of her family as her first priority, even as her opponents call her Ms Lambert and snipe about how she will care for her children if she departs for the wicked city of Washington.

State polls suggest that Mr Boozman (pronounced Bozeman) may be narrowing Mrs Lincoln's slight lead, and the race was always expected to be close.

The Lonoke farmers, says the bureau treasurer, Bill McNeil, are divided. Twenty years ago, he says, they would have been 100 per cent Democrat. "My 93-year-old mother would never vote anything but Democrat." Now, though, their vote is not guaranteed. It is a truism that the South is becoming more and more Republican. "The younger people and the retirees, they're voting more with their pocket book."

The Senate seat that Blanche Lincoln hopes to win on 3 November has been held for 24 years by the Democrat Dale Bumpers, styled the last of the party's southern liberals. Senator Bumpers distinguished himself as a fluent and forthright speaker on a range of issues. His retirement occasioned pages of laudatory farewells in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the publication of his valedictory speech in full.

In and around Little Rock there is more than a feeling that neither candidate quite measures up either to the character of Dale Bumpers, or to the dignity of the US Senate, and turn-out could be low.

Normally, that would favour the Republican, but Mrs Lincoln may gain support from an unexpected quarter: the weather. An early summer drought has cut cotton and soya yields in Arkansas by 20 per cent. The farmers are lobbying for government aid, and Democrats are seen as potentially more generous than Republicans.

If she wins, however, it is Mr Boozman she will have to thank above all. Two weeks before the Farm Bureau forum, he had made a gaffe of election- losing dimensions. A hardline opponent of abortion, he was asked about his support for an amendment that would ban abortion, but permit it for pregnancies resulting from rape. He observed that such pregnancies were rare because of "God's little protective shield" that prevented conception when a woman was afraid or anxious.

The objections were not immediate, but they stole up and ambushed him. He apologised.

All the talk of apologies, however, was limited to the hapless Mr Boozman. Of another contrite Arkansan, the Democratic President, Bill Clinton, there was not a word. Partly, it seemed to be because issues such as farm subsidies and taxes were uppermost in voters' minds; partly, it was just too embarrassing, and partly - the cynics suggested - because the private lives of most Arkansas politicians are no more lilywhite than Bill Clinton's.