Bill Halter's Exit Creates Hope for Arkansas Democrats (AP Analysis)

LITTLE ROCK - Since first running for statewide office seven years ago, Bill Halter has been a thorn in the side of many establishment Democrats in Arkansas. But his exit from the governor's race and possible bid for a congressional seat is now raising hopes among those same establishment figures that he may help the party rebound from its recent slide.

The former lieutenant governor's decision to drop out of the governor's race is a boon to Mike Ross, the former congressman who now has a clear path to the Democratic nomination. The nearly $2 million that Ross has raised for the race can now be used in the coming fight with Republicans, rather than in a bruising party battle with Halter.

Just as he did when dropping out of the governor's race in 2006 to run for the state's No. 2 constitutional office in 2006, Halter cited a desire to avoid that kind of fight.

"But since we announced our gubernatorial campaign another strong candidate has entered the primary election and in order to avoid a divisive primary and to help unite the Democratic Party, I am ending my campaign for governor," Halter told supporters in an email.

Halter's exit also may create a new opportunity for Democrats who are quietly urging the former Clinton administration official to challenge Republican Congressman Tim Griffin in central Arkansas. In his statement after Halter's announcement, Ross said he urged the former lieutenant governor to continue pursuing public service. The state Democratic Party also indicated it saw a future for Halter without invoking the possibility of a 2nd District run.

"We are thankful for his exceptional public service and expect him to remain a significant voice for working class people, our senior citizens and Arkansas Democrats," the state party said.

The nudging from party leaders shows the two-edged sword Halter represents. The same Halter qualities that cause critics to roll their eyes - naked ambition, ability to mobilize support and draw attention - are the same ones they think will help in trying to reclaim a former Democratic stronghold.

Halter's term as lieutenant governor and his successful push for the constitutional amendment authorizing a state lottery to fund college scholarships give him name recognition that Democrats haven't had in the past two elections against Griffin. His unsuccessful bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010 show that he has the ability to raise money and support from labor and other key parts of the Democratic Party base.

Those qualities are what observers say the party will need in a race where they hope to turn out the vote in Pulaski County, the central Arkansas district's Democratic stronghold.

"It's going to take a candidate who is willing to get in there and punch and counterpunch again and again," said Debbie Willhite, a Democratic political consultant in Little Rock who has worked on 2nd District campaigns. "That is what will be coming at whoever the Democratic nominee is."

If he does run, Halter's likely to face heat from Republicans on multiple fronts, including troubles the state lottery commission has had since the games he championed launched in 2009. They're also likely to note that the 2nd District bid is the second time he's dropped out of a gubernatorial race to seek another office.

A Griffin-Halter matchup could also create one of the more nationally watched congressional races in the country, in a state where Republicans believe they have a chance to tilt control of the U.S. Senate with the bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.

That prospect is what's prompting those in the party who once saw Halter as a headache to reassess that view. With the party's future on the line, he may be their last hope.

"It's not a marriage. It's really doing what's best for the party for this one cycle," said Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College who's been active with the state Democratic Party. "It's looking at the short term rather than the long term."

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