NEWPORT, Ark. — Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln traded jabs with challenger Lt. Gov. Bill Halter as they campaigned days before a nationally watched runoff that will wrap up one of the most expensive and bitter political battles in state history.
The pair traveled throughout the state Saturday — Lincoln in northeast and northwest Arkansas, Halter in the west and south — as they neared the end of their 14-week battle for the Democratic Senate nomination. Lincoln is fighting to keep her job in Tuesday's runoff.
The candidates have spent more than $10 million combined on their campaigns. The price tag rises with the millions that outside groups such as the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have pumped into the state, mostly on television advertising.
The winner will face Republican U.S. Rep. John Boozman in the general election. Most polls have shown Lincoln and Halter both trailing Boozman in the fall contest.
Lincoln, considered one of Washington's most vulnerable incumbents, continued to cast the race as an attempt by outside groups to interfere in Arkansas politics.
"People need to ... remind themselves that there are a lot of outside interest groups coming in here spending money to try and tell us who we are and buy our votes," Lincoln told The Associated Press as she campaigned in Newport, in northeastern Arkansas. "This is a time for us to stand up and say we can't be bought."
In the campaign's final days, Lincoln has run ads featuring former President Bill Clinton accusing labor unions backing Halter of trying to make an example of her for not supporting their agenda.
Lincoln has also run ads telling voters that she heard their frustration with Washington in the May 18 primary, when they sent her into a runoff with Halter.
Halter scoffed at that ad Saturday.
"If you're a 16-year incumbent, you should have had 16 years to hear about people's anger or frustration," Halter told the AP as he campaigned early Saturday at a farmer's market in downtown North Little Rock, shortly before beginning his tour through west and south Arkansas. "Going out and saying 'I heard your anger on May 18' after you failed to clear 45 percent of the vote sounds more like a plea to keep your job."
Lincoln, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, argues that she's built up enough clout to get work done in Washington on the state's behalf. Halter contends she's been more responsive to Wall Street than working people.
'Give me more credit'
Lincoln has faced anger on both sides in her re-election bid, and has seen her approval numbers slip over the past year. Conservatives have criticized her for supporting the health care overhaul, while liberals have targeted her for opposing a government-run insurance option as part of health reform.
Despite backing from the left, Halter said Saturday he considers himself the true fiscal conservative in the race.
"She voted for most of the major pieces of legislation that resulted in these big debts and deficits," Halter said, noting Lincoln's support of former President George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001.
Lincoln defended her record, saying she's supported a balanced-budget amendment and other ways to reduce government spending.
"To think I'm going to be the one single-handedly that ... changed the direction of the deficit is amazing, giving me more credit than I'm due," she said.
Lincoln also has drawn the ire of the AFL-CIO and other labor unions for opposing the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize.
Despite that anger, Lincoln met voters in Newport who encouraged her in her bid for a third term.
Jim Neeley, a Bradford police officer, said he planned to support Lincoln even though he didn't agree with her vote for the health care bill. Neeley said he likes Halter but believes Lincoln hadn't done anything to warrant her firing by voters.
"Bill's not a bad guy," Neeley said, "but if it's not broke, don't fix it."
Freeman Travis, a 911 supervisor in Newport, said he typically votes Republican in general elections but would cast a ballot for Halter on Tuesday. Travis, however, said he would vote for Boozman in the fall.
"She hasn't been listening," Travis said.
Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels hasn't predicted how many voters will show up at the polls Tuesday, but recent history suggests turnout will drop off sharply compared with the primary. Twenty-nine percent of the state's 1.6 million voters cast a ballot in the primary.
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