Democrats' Race for Arkansas Governor in '14 Unsettled (AP Analysis)

LITTLE ROCK - Bill Halter and Mike Ross have each opted against an expensive and bitter fight for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination before, but the two are moving closer toward what could be one of the biggest party fights ever for the state's top office.

Two months after Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's exit from the governor's race, the battle within the Democratic Party to find a consensus pick to replace him remains as unsettled as ever. It's a race that for now may overshadow what's expected to be a costly and bitter campaign by Republicans to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor next year.

That much was clear earlier this month, as Democrats crowded the Statehouse Convention Center to help Pryor kick off his re-election campaign. Pryor even offered a nod to the uncertainty of the race to succeed Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who is term limited and can't run for re-election next year.

"We have three people who may be the Democratic candidates for governor," Pryor said, referring to Halter, Ross and Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter. "Let's give them a hand and encourage them."

Halter, a former lieutenant governor who briefly ran against Beebe in 2006 before switching to the race for the state's No. 2 office, is wasting no time trying to stake his ground in the nomination battle. The father of the amendment that created the state lottery, Halter is now calling for an expansion of the scholarship program it helps fund.

"What we want to do as a state is to say clearly and early to parents and students if you work hard and play by the rules and act responsibly, you've got this opportunity to have a college education in front of you," Halter said.

It's a similar approach Halter took in 2006, when he briefly ran for governor before switching to his successful race for the state's No. 2 office. That campaign centered on Halter's lottery proposal to fund college scholarships, an idea that voters approved in 2008.

The centerpiece of his campaign now is to offer scholarships to high school graduates who maintain a 2.5 GPA, a move that he estimates will cost the state an additional $50 million to $75 million a year.

The proposal gives Halter a head start in reaching out to voters and party faithful with the Democratic primary more than a year away, but the biggest question mark surrounds Ross and his plans for next year. Ross, the former congressman who represented south Arkansas, announced last year that he wouldn't seek the Democratic nomination for the state's top office.

But after McDaniel dropped out in January over questions about an admitted extramarital relationship, Ross said he's taking another look at the race.

"Dustin McDaniel getting out of the race has left a huge void which clearly none of the other candidates are filling or I wouldn't be getting all these calls from every corner of the state," Ross said as he attended Pryor's re-election fundraiser. "I'm humbled by that and I feel a sense of duty and responsibility to the people of this state to at least reconsider my decision and I'm doing that."

Ross isn't the only one taking a look. Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter and state Sen. Keith Ingram have also said they're considering running for the Democratic nomination.

While a Ross candidacy may excite some Democrats worried about the party's chances to keep the governor's mansion next year, a race between him and Halter could expose some of the party divisions that Republicans are all too eager to exploit next year. The GOP face for the state's top office for now appears far more settled, with former Congressman Asa Hutchinson and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman running.

If he gets in, Ross is sure to have the backing of establishment Democrats who have sparred with Halter and are wary of his general election chances in a state that's moving more to the right. Halter in turn could win over the support of many on the left by painting Ross as too conservative. A member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in Congress, Ross was one of the leading Democrats to oppose President Barack Obama's health care plan in 2009 and early 2010.

It's a fight where both may be able to dust off their favorite campaign lines from the past few years.

"I'm proud to be running as a Democrat," Halter said during his unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge against Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a race where he highlighted Lincoln's opposition to her party's national initiatives on issues such as health care and air pollution regulations. "I don't run away from that label."

It's a rallying cry that could work for Democrats frustrated by the dramatic policy shifts at the Legislature after Republicans took over. But it could also give Ross a chance to tout himself as the most electable candidate in the mold of Beebe and Pryor.

But Ross will first have to explain his shift back to a race that he said he was too burnt out to try.

"You never say never, but I think 2014 was my year, and I think we had a decent shot at winning," Ross said last year.

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