At a time when many incumbents — especially Democratic ones — are in political peril across the country, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe finds himself in remarkably good shape.
He is both an incumbent and a Democrat — and serving in a state where President Barack Obama's agenda is especially unpopular — yet he has remained blissfully untouched by the public fury that has turned his Arkansas colleague Sen. Blanche Lincoln into one of the most endangered politicians on Capitol Hill this fall.
Beebe is running for a second term with an approval rating measured at 70 percent a few months ago and faces a Republican who acknowledges that his challenge is finding a way to beat someone everybody likes.
"He's actually in a totally enviable position," said longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.
What's Beebe's secret? And more important, would it work outside Arkansas?
Strategists are pondering those questions. But it's clear that Beebe is riding out a treacherous climate by keeping his head down and appealing to the centrist voters who can mean the difference in swing states like Arkansas, where Democrats dominate statewide offices but Republicans have increasingly prevailed in presidential contests.
Beebe's standing is notable for the way he has kept such a low profile achieving it. In a state famous for its outsize political personalities like Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee and for its stem-winding orators, the 63-year-old Beebe is relentlessly mild-mannered and soft-spoken.
A state legislator before becoming governor, Beebe has stuck to basics like education and taxes and shied away from controversial topics — especially national ones, like Obama's health care overhaul.
During the health care debate, Beebe said for months that he was concerned about the costs of the overhaul to Arkansas. But he did not actually say he was opposed to the measure until the day after the House gave final approval.
Critics say that shows Beebe won't take on tough issues. But others maintain that he just has a better sense of what moderates want from government.
"He is in sync with the prevailing centrist spirit of voters," said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University.
Beebe credits his standing partly to the state's financial condition. Although he has cut Arkansas' budget by $207 million over the past year, he has avoided the mass layoffs, school closings and other drastic cuts that other states have made. Most of his cuts came from leaving positions vacant, reducing agencies' travel budgets and halting planned expansions of programs.
"I think they look at where we are, and they're pretty pleased about how we're weathering this storm compared to the rest of the country," Beebe said in an interview.
Many incumbents in other states — Republicans and Democrats alike — have been reeling from the backlash against those in power. Iowa's Democratic Gov. Chet Culver is trailing his GOP challengers in the polls. Colorado Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter dropped his re-election bid amid weak poll numbers, and Govs. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Charlie Crist of Florida and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota are finishing their terms with slumping ratings. New Jersey's Jon Corzine was defeated for re-election last year.
In the Senate, besides Arkansas' Lincoln, Barbara Boxer of California, Harry Reid of Nevada, John McCain of Arizona and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania are seen as vulnerable or facing surprisingly strong challenges.
Polls show many voters have become impatient with the lack of jobs, the soaring deficit and elected officials who seemed locked in partisan infighting.
In Beebe's own state, Lincoln is fending off a challenge in the May 18 Democratic primary from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, and eight Republicans have filed to run for her seat.
Lincoln faces anger from both the right and the left. Republicans have condemned her for supporting the health care overhaul, while groups on the left have criticized her for opposing a government-run insurance option.
Beebe was elected in 2006 by defeating Republican Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman and Homeland Security official. Beebe campaigned on phasing out the state's sales tax on groceries and has since cut it from 6 percent to 2 percent.
The governor has had a smooth relationship with the Democrat-controlled Legislature, which has approved nearly all his proposals, including one raising the tobacco tax to benefit health programs.
His GOP rival in November, Jim Keet, a restaurant owner and former legislator, insists he is undaunted by Beebe's popularity: "We're not running for senior class president."
He also complains about Beebe's ducking of national issues like health care. "I don't think that's leadership," Keet said. "We need someone who will take tough positions and then advocate for them."
Analysts say Beebe will have to test himself on tough issues if he wants to move onto a larger political stage. But for now, Beebe says no thanks. "Washington is a tough place where we need good people, but it's not really my cup of tea," he said.
Republicans in the state are still trying to tie Beebe to the health care bill and are urging him to challenge the measure in court. The state House GOP leader called Beebe "AWOL" on the health care debate.
Although Republicans are hanging the Obama administration's problems around other Democrats' necks, they are not sure it will work with Beebe.
"He is defined in the vast majority of Arkansans' minds not by national issues, but by state issues," GOP strategist Bill Vickery said. "To try to redefine him is an awfully difficult thing to do."
(This version CORRECTS by deleting Skelton, a congressman, from list of senators.)
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