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Analysis: Lincoln running like she’s in trouble

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Blanche Lincoln has $2.3 million in the bank for her re-election bid, and hails from a state where Democrats have a virtual monopoly on the political scene. But she’s acting like a candidate who’s in trouble as she seeks another term as Arkansas’ senior senator.

She’s trying to solidify her conservative credentials, but taking positions that could invite a Democratic primary challenge.

By most standards, Lincoln is in a strong position as she launches her re-election bid. She announced last week that she raised $1.7 million in the first quarter of the year for her 2010 campaign. And Republicans have yet to field a candidate against her and have a weakened bench from which to draw.

Yet it’s hard not to view Lincoln as a candidate who’s running as if she’s expecting a tough race.

After months of wavering on legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize, Lincoln came out against the so-called “card check” bill that Republicans have been trying to point to as a weakness in her re-election bid. It wasn’t an unpredictable move, coming from a lawmaker who had called the measure unnecessary but had stopped short of saying she was opposed to it.

Last week, she took that last big step.

“I cannot support that bill. I cannot support it in its current form,” Lincoln said. “I may not have said that as clearly before, but I’m saying it now.”

The announcement was the latest in a series of steps Lincoln’s taken in recent weeks to tout her conservative stance and distance herself from President Barack Obama’s administration.

She’s broken with Democratic leaders in the Senate to push for an estate tax exemption for estates up to $10 million and taxing estates at a lower rate proposed by Obama. She’s also proposing a law to allow concealed firearms on national parks and wildlife refuges, an attempt to codify a Bush administration policy that was blocked by a federal court.

While Lincoln already enjoys support among moderates in the state, the change of heart on the Employee Free Choice Act and her moves on other issues may help her win over more conservatives.

It may also help her scare away Republican challengers. The state GOP has targeted Lincoln’s seat as their top prize in next year’s election. They hope to avoid a repeat of last year, when they couldn’t field a candidate to run against Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.

Republicans have painted Lincoln as vulnerable, but her supposed weakness could depend on the other names on the ballot.

There’s no lack of interest. Former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin has said he hopes to decide soon whether to run against Lincoln, while Republican state senators Gilbert Baker of Conway and Kim Hendren of Gravette have also said they’re considering a run against Lincoln.

Her real test could come in the Democratic primary. Two events last week signaled that she may be vulnerable among two of the party’s key constituencies.

One of those signals came when the NAACP criticized Lincoln and Pryor for not offering any black candidates for three open judgeships in the state’s federal district courts.

The Arkansas NAACP’s president, Dale Charles, said he doesn’t know if Lincoln will lose support among the state’s black voters, but said it was a sign of dissatisfaction the African-American community has found with the senator.

“It is just a slap in the black community’s face,” Charles said.

Lincoln may also have to mend some fences with labor over her opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act.

Alan Hughes, head of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, said he’s still holding out hope that Lincoln will change her mind or support an altered version of the bill. The group had backed Lincoln in her 2004 re-election bid.

He stopped short of saying the union would back another candidate in her re-election bid, but said she faces plenty of anger in the labor community.

“There’s a lot of them highly put out with her and frustrated. They’re disappointed,” Hughes said. “They feel like they’ve been sent down the river.”

For her part, Lincoln says she’s focusing on other issues that are higher priorities than the so-called “card check” legislation.

“We don’t move at breakneck speed in Washington, and when you have something that is that divisive and that distracting — with the little time that we have to do health care reform and energy reform and to start tax reform in the fall, we’re going to be doing a tremendous amount of work,” she said. “And to stop and do something like that would completely eliminate our ability to focus and spend the kind of time that we need, so I think it’s time to move on.”

DeMillo covers Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press.

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