LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Usually overshadowed by a nationally watched Senate race that could decide which party controls that chamber, Arkansas' gubernatorial hopefuls showed they have just as many jabs to throw at each other as they met for their first televised debate last week.
Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson have appeared at dozens of forums and events for well over a year in their fight for Arkansas' top office, and have mostly stuck to the same themes as they've stumped across the state.
But Friday night's debate showed that this is no longer a race that's as simple as a Democrat who aspires to be the education governor and a Republican saying he wants to be the jobs governor. It's a Republican casting himself as a champion of the middle class against a Democrat hoping voters will view him as the second coming of Gov. Mike Beebe.
Hutchinson touted his proposal to cut individual income taxes by $100 million in his first year if elected as the best way to help the state's middle class.
"I think the defining question in this race is who can do best to really help the middle class, and this is the way to do it," Hutchinson said.
The pitch to voters as the middle class champion sounds familiar because it's the same one Democrats have been trying to make in their bid to prevent the GOP's takeover of state and federal offices. At the state Democratic convention earlier this summer, Ross derided Hutchinson as someone who "spent too much time in boardrooms and courtrooms and not enough time in living rooms and break rooms."
Ross and Hutchinson have been regularly sparring over their tax cut plans, with Hutchinson accusing Ross of promising voters too much and offering few specifics with his plan to gradually reduce individual income taxes by $575 million over time. Ross has said his proposal is the more responsible approach, saying Hutchinson's plan would jeopardize the state's finances by cutting too much, too soon.
Ross used the debate to try and emulate Beebe, the two-term Democratic governor who has remained immensely popular in a state that's been trending Republican in recent years. He compared his plan to gradually reduce income taxes to Beebe's successful push to cut the sales tax on groceries.
"I subscribe to the Gov. Beebe model," Ross boasted.
It's a model he also invoked to criticize Hutchinson for opposing Beebe's "Quick Action Closing Fund," which is used to land economic development deals, when Hutchinson and Beebe ran for governor eight years ago. The references to Beebe are as much about trying to cast Hutchinson as someone who's lost three bids for statewide office as they are about co-opting a popular governor's policies.
The debate is a reminder that there's just as much intensity over the governor's race as there is in the high-dollar Senate fight between Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican rival Rep. Tom Cotton. Ross and Hutchinson each complained about the negative ads in their race, with each accusing the other of unfairly attacking their character.
The testiness was more than apparent throughout the debate. Hutchinson criticized Ross for voting for Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. When Ross interjected that he gave the nominating speech for Pelosi's rival the only time she had opposition, Hutchinson responded: "Don't get so defensive about your flip-flopping on Nancy Pelosi."
At another point, Hutchinson asked moderators if he could respond to a series of criticisms Ross detailed.
"I'm sorry, am I going too fast for you? I'll try to slow down a little," Ross responded.
Voters will get another reminder of that intensity, and rivals another chance to try and reframe their race, with another televised debate approaching Oct. 7.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.
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