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Mark Pryor Keeping Arkansas Senate Race Close Down Final Stretch

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There was a point it seemed Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor would be better off planning a retirement party than a re-election campaign.

After all, fellow Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost her 2010 re-election bid by a whopping 21 points, and President Barack Obama’s support has only dropped since. National Republicans were excited when Tom Cotton, a first-term congressman with an impressive resume, announced he would run for Senate in a state Mitt Romney won by 24 points in 2012.

But Cotton, a boyish looking 37-year-old, soon found that not all Arkansas voters shared that enthusiasm, and the two candidates have been locked in a close race critical to the GOP’s chances of retaking the Senate.

One reason for Arkansans hesitancy to hand Cotton a promotion is that the political newcomer is not nearly as well-known as his opponent.

“Arkansas voters have a long history of being independent and a long history of being familiar with their candidates,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.

Conversely, the Pryor family name has been involved in Arkansas politics for decades. Pryor’s father, David, served as a congressman, governor and senator, and has been a key surrogate for his son throughout the campaign. And though Pryor is the last remaining Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, he has worked to separate himself from Obama, and instead align himself with another well-known Democrat -- former President Bill Clinton.

“It’s a pretty good scam isn't it? Give me a six year job for a two year protest, that’s Mark Pryor’s opponent’s message,” Clinton told supporters at a rally earlier this month.

It has helped keep the race close down the final stretch, with the latest NBC News/Marist poll showing Cotton leading by just two points. Last month he led by five.

And Pryor’s campaign has been far from perfect. In March, he told NBC News that Cotton’s military service gives him a “sense of entitlement” to serve in the Senate. Pryor also released an eyebrow raising ad linking Cotton to the Ebola outbreak, and then awkwardly struggled to answer a question about the president’s response to the disease.

What Pryor has had success in doing, though, is painting Cotton as an overly ambitious opportunist and political extremist. He has linked Cotton to the Koch brothers, tied him to last year’s government shutdown, and, perhaps most critically, has hammered him for his vote against the farm bill. Cotton was the only member of the state’s congressional delegation to vote against it.

Cotton has responded by attempting to draw a close link between Pryor and Obama. A recent ad features a clip of the president saying his “policies are on the ballot” juxtaposed to a ballot with Pryor’s name on it. Cotton says his opponent votes with Obama 93 percent of the time.

He is also hoping his youth and inexperience in Washington are things that will work to his advantage.

“Some people say I’m a young man in a hurry. Guess what? They’re right,” Cotton said when he announced his Senate bid. “We’ve got urgent problems and I am in a hurry to solve them.

Follow the bus tour on Twitter #WhereIsChuck

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