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Second in command: tall man meets the one-eyed dog in part two of a race that could shape the state's future.

AS DEMOCRAT TOM McRae stood in the lobby of a Fordyce radio station last week, an employee emerged from the back room, plopped a cassette recorder on the desk and stuck a microphone in McRae's face without asking if he might want to sit. Across the street, the weekly newspaper had no interest in interviewing a candidate for lieutenant governor.

Rival candidate Nate Coulter experienced much the same thing the next day at a Benton radio station, where he was allotted less than a minute to discuss his campaign.

The boredom expressed by the state's media over this race was reflected in the paltry turnout for the June 8 special election. Only 8.4 percent of the state's registered voters cast ballots in the election, which produced a June 22 Democratic runoff election between McRae and Coulter that might beckon even fewer voters.

What's puzzling about the apathy is that this lieutenant governor's race could prove to be one of the most important state political contests of the decade.

The Democratic nominee faces a strong Republican candidate in Mike Huckabee of Texarkana, and with no experience in elected office among the three candidates, it's a wide-open race. The eventual winner has an excellent chance of becoming governor within four years, and the two losers could see their political careers dissolve.

The Democratic candidates recognize what is at stake.

Speculation is rampant that U.S. Sen. David Pryor's recent heart problems will lead him to eschew a bid for another six-year term in 1996, encouraging Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to seek his seat and leaving Tucker's desk virtually open to the reigning lieutenant governor. That's one of the reasons the candidates have spent the last two weeks returning to their strongest areas of support and pleading with voters to go to the polls one more time.

Coulter, 33, stunned McRae in the June 8 primary by taking 41 percent of the vote and 58 of the state's 75 counties.

McRae seemed like the favorite going in, having finished a respectable second to Bill Clinton in the 1990 Democratic primary race for governor. But he discovered that Coulter's connections to President Clinton and U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., sucked up a tremendous portion of the available campaign donations. The money turned into television commercials, and the commercials turned into votes. McRae was left with 32 percent of the votes in the primary.

Now Coulter is running on adrenaline, and McRae is wondering aloud if he'll even be living in this state next year.

McRae zipped from town to town last week, hitting every media outlet he could find and turning up the heat on his opponent. He described Coulter as a "nice young man and a good lawyer" who gets all his campaign issues from opinion polls and wants to accomplish things that are beyond the purview of the office.

Coulter has put a lot of emphasis on the rising crime problem and promises to help communities increase police protection and establish other safeguards such as teen-age curfews.

"Hell, he ought to run for sheriff," quipped McRae at least three times on a swing through south Arkansas. "You can't impose curfews as lieutenant governor. You can't put more police on the streets."

Among other goals, McRae wants to use the office to foster rural economic development, which has been the major thrust of his work as 14-year president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. He says the commissions put together by the governor often attract too much petty political criticism to produce useful recommendations. The lieutenant governor, on the other hand, is under less pressure and scrutiny, so his working panels enjoy a more open, relaxed exchange of ideas.

Coulter claims McRae wants to be a "ribbon cutter" in office.

"I have a much broader idea of public service," Coulter says. "I recognize that the lieutenant governor is not king. He can't alone make anything happen, but he can use the office to raise these issues -- to be an advocate."

Coulter also advocates a "top-to-bottom" audit of state government efficiency to cut waste.

Money Talks

He has absolutely crushed McRae in fund-raising efforts, according to the most recent financial disclosures. As of Coulter's June 12 report, he had received contributions of more than $238,000 and spent almost $186,000. McRae, who was late with his last disclosure, reported contributions of about $120,000 and expenses of just over $100,000 on June 4.

The disparity is magnified many times over by the fact that McRae has personally loaned $40,000 to his campaign, meaning Coulter has won the fund-raising battle by a margin of nearly 3-to-1.

It is revealing to read the names of the contributors. A healthy portion of Coulter's strength comes from the Little Rock legal community, but a majority of the contributors came right off the Clinton family Christmas card list.

It's worth noting that officials at the politically powerful Tyson Foods Inc. have made four separate donations to Coulter totaling $3,500. Other notable donations have come from Brent Bumpers, the senator's son; William H. Bowen, Clinton's last gubernatorial chief of staff; Jim Pledger, Clinton's director of the state Department of Finance and Administration; Worthen National Bank's political action committee; and timber giant International Paper Co.

McRae's money list is noticeably short on powerful corporate types, and the average donation is lower. Taking a cheaper route, McRae has even received an estimated $10,000 in pro bono political consulting from Mary Dillard of Little Rock.

Just as every other left-handed hitter in the minor leagues is touted as the next Ted Williams, every young politician in this state is going to be measured against Clinton for decades to come. With Coulter, it's a valid comparison.

He is a very young, enthusiastic candidate at 33. Though his speech-making opportunities have been few, the Harvard University law graduate has a touch of Clinton's smooth delivery, good memory and command of subject material. When one bewildered radio announcer hopefully asked Coulter to fill 15 minutes, Coulter improvised for 24 minutes and barely came up for air.

He has very little to lose in this race, and he knows it.

Like the young Clinton, Coulter is well-connected with the established political structure. He served then-Gov. Clinton as legal assistant, turning policy ideas into legislation. He currently works at the politically minded Little Rock law firm of Wright Lindsey and Jennings, and recently served as Bumpers' campaign manager in the 1992 race against Huckabee.

Critical Connections

Of all these, the Bumpers connection has proven most useful. Coming off a hot statewide political race, Coulter was very familiar with the network of local Democratic organizers and supporters that ultimately make or break a statewide campaign. He even duplicated Bumpers' campaign logo, using the familiar red diamond outline that has served the senator so well over the years.

"I think there's a lot of credibility that rubs off on me," Coulter says. "People say, 'If he managed Dale Bumpers' campaign, I'll give him a look.' If I had not worked for Bumpers, I probably would not have made this race because I would not have had time to learn the people."

The Democrats have had only a month to define themselves in this race, and the winner will have another month to make his case against Huckabee.

McRae also has connections to Bumpers, having been his staff coordinator for four years when Bumpers was governor of Arkansas. But his older ties to the senator were not the kind that translate into an instant campaign network. Bumpers has remained publicly neutral in the race.

McRae, 55, is a genuinely nice, intelligent man committed to the idea of helping others. But by any known definition, he is not a typical politicians.

This is a man who dares to drink tomato juice in the car without bringing a spare shirt. He says he has problems expressing his ideas in short, succinct sentences. He also lacks the politician's knack for mindless chit-chat. McRae quotes Kipling with the best of them, but his conversations with voters generally last about four seconds.

McRae is so engrossed with history that he can't resist the urge to explain passing landmarks as his campaign car motors through the state.

On a leisurely trip from Magnolia to Little Rock, he suddenly asks the driver to depart state Highway 19 in Prescott for a little lesson in "Arkana." As the car pulls over, he hops out and marches into a grassy cemetery.

"My great-grandfather," he declares, tapping his shoe on the headstone. It's the grave of Thomas Chipman McRae, an Arkansas congressman in the late 1800s and governor of the state from 1921-1925. In this cemetery rest many members of the McRae clan.

Soon, a stone might be laid there for Tom's political career.

Dwindling Hope

In public, McRae is upbeat about his chances in the runoff. "I feel like we're picking up momentum," he says to one well-wisher in his hometown of El Dorado.

Privately, however, he seems resigned to the notion that his political message of economic development is not exciting voters and his campaign tactics are too prosaic to grab attention.

"Maybe you can't talk the way I talk and get elected," McRae says, "but you should be able to. If this one doesn't work out, I think it tells me that the kind of race I offer can't work out. If I win this race, I have a political future. I don't know what it is if I don't."

McRae says a loss would force him to dump his recent consulting activities for a full-time job, and that probably means leaving the state he loves so much.

The fate of McRae's campaign may be sealed by his early advertising. McRae's television commercial was a cartoon-style play on the way he was characterized by political columnists in the 1990 race. They said he was too intelligent, too decent and too tall to be governor. The ad tacitly implies that the other candidates might have just the opposite features. McRae's profound tallness (6-foot-7) and inconceivably large feet (size 15 tennis shoe) are graphically accentuated as he seems to soar over the rest of the field.

The campaign's lapel stickers depict a disembodied pair of long cartoon legs in suit pants. Other materials tout him as the candidate "we can all look up to."

The concept was designed to set McRae apart from a large field of relatively anonymous Democratic contenders. But by his own evaluation, it failed to define him as a candidate.

Funny things, gimmicks. Sometimes they flop. And sometimes, without warning, they work.

Coulter, for example, struck political gold with a television ad stressing his agrarian upbringing in Nashville (Howard County). The star of the ad is his "one-eyed dog" named Cassie, who, we're told, is smarter than some bureaucrats. (McRae is telling everyone that the ad claims the dog is smarter than "state employees.")

The dog, originally mentioned offhand in a Texarkana television interview, was being talked about the next day when Coulter reached another south Arkansas town. Before long, Cassie was a statewide celebrity. If this ad wasn't a political home run, it was close.

"It was definitely a line drive in the corner for extra bases," Coulter says.

In his first political race, he is already typecast. "You're the one with the one-eyed dog," they say, over and over again. Coulter nods and replies -- somewhat out of pride, somewhat out of boredom -- "I sure am glad I'm not running against that dog."

McRae could tell him exactly what it's like.
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Title Annotation:Tom McRae; Nate Coulter
Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 21, 1993
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