Ballot Box

Bible Beltway

On the campaign trail with Arkansas’ new Romeo.

Fort Smith, Ark., sits on the Oklahoma border about three hours west of Little Rock. I flew here last night on a 30-seat propeller plane, over miles of blackness uninterrupted by electric light. The idea was to escape Washington and see the political wilderness. This morning, I show up on Main Street in Van Buren—a suburb of Fort Smith, if you can believe it—to watch Sen. Tim Hutchinson work the coffee shops. I find him in a sidewalk conversation. But the people he’s chatting with aren’t locals. They’re reporters from the Associated Press, Fox News, and the Washington Post. There goes the wilderness.

Our first stop is a diner with cheap wood paneling and a sloped, corrugated roof. It looks like the inside of a trailer. Hutchinson bounds around the room, shaking hands and asking for votes. Most people are noncommittal—not a good sign, considering that he’s the incumbent and this is his old House district. Hutchinson sits down and orders oatmeal. He stirs it constantly but doesn’t lift the spoon to his mouth. He’s here to greet voters. Eating would get in the way.

For the reporters, this is anthropology. “Get people dining, waiters, and waitresses,” the Fox News correspondent tells his cameraman. He introduces himself to two guys in gimme caps. One is unshaven, the other is wearing a Marlboro T-shirt and missing his upper teeth. They’re sitting with a woman who’s wider than she is tall. On their table, two ashtrays are going. While Hutchinson gabs with the press, the Post reporter points over his shoulder. “You’ve got a real voter who wants to talk to you,” she tells him.

We leave the diner, turn down Main Street, and walk into another cafe. It’s called—drum roll, please—the Main Street Café. The media pack—seven of us, including the Fox News crew—is too big to fit in the entryway. We back out and cross the street to a bank, where the manager has arranged for Hutchinson to greet his employees. “Pleased to meet you, Amanda,” the senator says excitedly to a teller. “You ready for a big day?” Yes, sir, the teller must be thinking. We call it “Wednesday.

The locals direct their own anthropology at the press corps. One of Hutchinson’s escorts is Bruce Coleman, the county GOP chairman. He’s in the propane business. He wants to know whether the Fox News producer, a woman named Ann Marie, is from the South. She tells him no, she’s from New Jersey. Coleman says he thought she might be Southern because she has two names. This, after all, is a state in which the Democratic nominee for governor is named Jimmie Lou. Hutchinson’s opponent in the Republican Senate primary was Jim Bob Duggar, a state legislator who has 13 kids and another on the way. Coleman pronounces it Dooger but isn’t sure that’s correct. “I’m not gonna argue pronounciation with you,” he says. “I speak Hillbilly.”

Time to go. We jump in our cars and head down Interstate 540 in a caravan. The speed limit on the interstate is 65. I’m doing 70 and steadily losing ground to the senator. Where are all those Arkansas troopers I’ve heard so much about?

Our next stop is the headquarters of Beverly Industries, a nursing home chain. Nearly all of the 800 employees on the campus pack the company cafeteria to hear Hutchinson speak. Their CEO introduces him. “Sen. Hutchinson has consistently fought for the interests of this company,” the CEO tells the employees. “I’m not here to tell you how to vote,” he assures them, adding, “You all have a vested interest in having Sen. Hutchinson represent us.”

Hutchinson steps to the podium and points to the back of the room. “I do want to introduce my wife Randi. She’s right over here,” he says. With a giant whoosh, every head in the room turns. This is no ordinary political wife. This is the former staffer Hutchinson married a year after divorcing his wife in 1999. Around the room, dozens of people stare at the new Mrs. Hutchinson and mentally subtract 50 rosaries from the senator’s penance. She isn’t the bimbo they expected. She’s pale and bulky with a weak chin. She’s wearing almost as much makeup as the Fox News correspondent. She looks older than her age. “How old was his first wife?” one reporter asks. “Older,” says another.

Hutchinson hates to talk about his divorce. “The personal stuff,” he calls it. But how can you not talk about it? Here’s an ordained Baptist minister who sides with the religious right on every social issue. Months after voting to remove Bill Clinton from office, he splits from his wife. Shortly thereafter, he formalizes a relationship with a former staffer. Was it a sexual relationship at the time of his divorce? I’d like to see the deposition.

This enthrallingly sordid episode lends a double meaning to everything Hutchinson says. At Beverly Industries, he calls the Senate “dysfunctional.” At his next stop, a college forum, he tells Democrats in the audience, “There’s forgiveness. You can vote for a Republican, and God will forgive you.” Everyone here has heard Hutchinson invoke God’s forgiveness on his own behalf. Later, he tells the crowd, “I’m not wearing a camouflage uniform. What you see is what you get.” At a table nearby, his volunteers hand out pamphlets headlined “Working Hard for Arkansas Women.” No doubt.

I’ll see more of Hutchinson tomorrow, and I’ll tell you about his challenger, Democratic Attorney General Mark Pryor.