Lincoln prepares move to center after bruising win

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln prepared a return to the political center Wednesday as she began a general election campaign for a third term, a day after fending off a challenge from the left in the Democratic runoff for her seat.

Lincoln, who defeated Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in Tuesday’s runoff, said voters would see her as someone who’s worked with both parties while her Republican challenger painted her as too allied with President Barack Obama to win in November.

“I think there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of opportunities to see places where I’ve stood up against the administration and stood up for Arkansas on things I think are important,” Lincoln told The Associated Press Wednesday. “All you have to do is look at my record. I’m certainly right there smack dab in the middle.”

Republican Congressman John Boozman, who will face Lincoln in the general election, wasted no time portraying her as too close to Obama for Arkansas. The president lost the state by 20 points to Republican John McCain in the 2008 election.

“She embraced the endorsement of President Obama and I think that’s the problem,” Boozman told the AP. “When push comes to shove, she folds and does what the president asks her.”

Tuesday’s results showed Lincoln could push back against the anger she faced from the left on health care and other issues. Liberal groups and labor unions had criticized her for opposing a new government-run insurance plan as part of the health care reform.

But now she faces the ire of Republicans over her vote in favor of the health care overhaul.

“Senator Lincoln embraced the health care bill and was very proud to be the deciding vote, and the people of Arkansas very much are opposed to it,” Boozman said.

When first faced with Halter’s challenge, Lincoln portrayed herself as independent from the party and touted her opposition to the public option. Forced into a runoff, she tacked left with ads that showed her as a partner with Obama on health care.

Carving out a position as a centrist in the race will be tricky, political observers say.

Lincoln, however, was quick Wednesday to point out areas where she’s opposed the Obama administration. She cited her support of a “resolution of disapproval” offered by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski aimed at stopping the Environmental Protection Agency from carrying out regulations controlling greenhouse gases.

The White House has threatened to veto the resolution, which goes before the Senate for a vote Thursday.

Lincoln did not single out any of Boozman’s stances, but said the incumbent congressman has been more in lockstep with the GOP than she’s been with Democrats.

“He’s very nice, but I think he’s going to have a far more difficult time painting me to the left than where his record represents him on the far right,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln won after a bitter and expensive 14-week race against Halter, with the candidates spending more than $10 million on the campaign. That’s in addition to an estimated $10 million labor unions spent on the race in hopes of electing Halter.

Labor leaders said Wednesday they didn’t regret the spending, saying it sent a message to moderate Democrats to not take labor’s support for granted. Lincoln had attracted union anger by opposing the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize.

As he thanked supporters in North Little Rock on Wednesday, Halter declined to say whether he would endorse Lincoln’s re-election bid but said he would issue a statement in coming days.

“I think she’s got a fine little dance step to maneuver here,” said Hal Bass, political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University. “I don’t think she gets very far by a whole hearted embrace of the Obama presidency. At the same time, she has to show she can work with both sides in a polarizing environment to get things done.”


Associated Press Writers Sam Hananel in Washington and Jill Zeman Bleed in North Little Rock contributed to this report.