ENGLAND, Ark. - If Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is to win re-election against the odds in November, she will have to start by convincing voters such as Claude Spradling.
Since 1957, Spradling's family has run a fast food restaurant in the small, agricultural town of England, Arkansas -- the town even has a Bank of England, which stands on a dusty street corner near a second-hand store.
Asked about his political views, Spradling said: "I'm a conservative. But Blanche Lincoln is a good girl. She is pro-farmer. She grew up in rural Arkansas so she understands all of the farmers problems. So I might support her."
In some ways, Spradling, 60, is typical of voters in an atypical southern state in which conservative ideology and voting for Democratic candidates often goes hand in hand.
While the state has voted for Republicans in presidential elections since 2000, most of its legislators and its governor are Democrats. For years the party has put forward centrist candidates palatable to the state's conservatives. Ex-president Bill Clinton, who has campaigned for Lincoln, is a former Arkansas governor.
But Lincoln trails badly behind her Republican opponent, Congressman John Boozman, ahead of the Nov. 2 elections in which voters will elect 435 members of the House of Representatives and fill 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate.
Just 39 percent of likely voters said they would vote for Lincoln as against 53 percent for Boozman, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll released Wednesday.
Numerous voters said in interviews they were concerned about unemployment, recent healthcare legislation and the federal budget deficit.
For his part, Spradling said his greatest reservation about Lincoln was her support for healthcare reform.
"The election has been a referendum on President (Barack) Obama and the national Democratic leadership and the perception that they have made a hard left (turn) in terms of the country's policy choices," said Janine Parry, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.
"The fact that she is struggling is almost inexplicable," said Parry, in view of the advantage Lincoln should have as a well-financed incumbent who chairs the Senate agriculture committee, a prime position in an agricultural state.
ARKANSAS "VOTES WEIRD"
During a campaign stop in England, Lincoln defended her votes for healthcare reform and for a big economic stimulus package in 2009 she said was "good for Arkansas" because it facilitated much needed investment in infrastructure.
She also played up her centrist credentials, pointing to her support for debt elimination policies.
"When I can tell people about that and ... not have my record misrepresented ... people understand that we are trying really hard to dig ourselves out of a ditch," she said, while visiting a mobile dental clinic at an elementary school.
But she acknowledged that the national political climate handed Republicans an advantage: "My opponents are playing on fear and anger," she said in an interview.
State Republicans see the biggest opportunity in living memory to make electoral gains in Congressional races.
At a lively rally in the center of Little Rock, the state capital Sunday, Republicans predicted victory parties in November for their candidates as opposed to the 'watch parties' they held most election years when they expected defeat.
"They (national Democrats) have done more to advance the Republican Party in two years than the Republican Party has done in decades," said former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and may do so again in 2012.
Huckabee is viewed as a conservative on social issues favored by evangelical Republicans but less of a fiscal conservative than other possible presidential candidates.
Most state analysts say it is probably too late for Lincoln to close the gap on Boozman but if she is to do so, she will need to secure a high turnout of Democratic voters in a political season when Republicans are the more energized.
However, reflecting on the unusual nature of the state's political allegiances, John Thurston, a Republican candidate for lands commissioner, said: "You can't predict Arkansas sometimes. Arkansas votes weird."
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