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As Blanche Lincoln keeps the nation -- and Senate Democratic leadership -- waiting to find out whether she'll vote to allow the health care debate to go forward on the floor, her potential primary opponent is organizing a free health care clinic in Little Rock for the uninsured.
The clinic will open on Saturday, the same day that the wavering Democrat from Arkansas will at last have to make known her opinion on a crucial health care vote.
The National Association for Free Clinics was having difficulty finding a venue for the Arkansas clinic when Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter stepped in.
Halter went on MSNBC's "Countdown" Wednesday night and noted that more than a thousand uninsured Arkansans would be treated this weekend.
"There's a compelling need in Arkansas. We have over 450,000 Arkansans that are not insured," Halter said.
Host Lawrence O'Donnell asked Halter about polling that shows Arkansas voters backing a public option and supporting reform. Halter responded with a thinly-veiled swipe at Lincoln.
"If I was going to summarize where Arkansans are, they really want action. They're growing very impatient with all the talk," he said.
The stark contrast between the two Democrats raises questions about whether Halter will mount a primary campaign to unseat Lincoln.
Halter, given an opportunity to dampen that speculation, stoked it instead. "I certainly appreciate the hopes that a lot of people have expressed for me, but I want to focus on what we're doing on Saturday. This is not about politics," he said when asked whether he'd primary Lincoln. "We have a group, as I said, of over 25 organizations of all political stripes that are participating in this event. And out of respect for them, I'm going to keep politics out of this."
Politics, of course, couldn't be any more in it. "The fact that he didn't say it was very eloquent by its absence," said Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times, a widely read alternative weekly. "He has been very bold in getting behind this free health clinic."
Halter, after spearheading what has become an intensely popular statewide lottery, is riding a wave of popularity in the state, despite being an outspoken supporter of gay rights. Halter was a fierce opponent of an anti-gay-marriage amendment that passed in a landslide.
The lottery, though, has been a winning issue for him. "He will never be more popular in Arkansas than he is at this moment," said Brantley. "He's kind of a classic populist, progressive Democrat."
Halter would have a tough fight on his hands because Lincoln has locked down the support of the Arkansas political machine, which is no fan of Halter. "The political class despises him," Brantley said. "It's visceral. It's chemical. It's undeniable." That didn't stop him from winning the statewide race for lieutenant governor, however, he noted.
Lincoln's strategy behind her lack of a health care position is, to put it charitably, unclear. She has deeply angered liberals for slowing down the debate and refusing to commit to a public health insurance option or even to vote to allow a debate to take place. Conservatives assume that she'll vote with her party in the end, so she isn't pleasing them. And centrists see her as without conviction.
Halter's threat of a primary challenge will likely be enough to assure she'll vote on Saturday on the motion to proceed to debate the health care bill. Whether it'll pressure her to vote against filibusters all the way to the end remains to be seen -- and plays a role in the calculus behind Halter's run. He has until March to decide. If Lincoln votes with her party and comprehensive health care reform is enacted, Halter would have little room to run. If she blocks it, she could be run over, machine and all.
"Voting against the public option -- or helping Republicans block a vote on health care altogether -- would be career suicide for Blanche Lincoln. It would alienate large numbers of Democrats and Independents when she's already facing an extremely tough re-election," said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has been running polls in the state.
Brantley said that Lincoln's low polling results are reflective of what he has seen across the state.
He was talking to a longtime Lincoln campaign worker on Wednesday, he said, and even he was down. "He isn't meeting anybody who's enthusiastic for her. They just don't care," he said.
Lincoln can't afford that lack of enthusiasm. The Democratic base won't come out and back a Republican, but they could just stay home. In Virginia, PCCC polled 400 independents and 400 Democrats who voted for Obama but chose not to vote in the recent governor's race. Forty-one percent said that Democrat Creigh Deeds's declaration that he would opt Virginia out of a public option if he could depressed their enthusiasm to vote for him.
Among Arkansas Democrats, support for the public option is intense. More than 8 in ten Democrats told pollsters they supported a public option. Among independents, support was 57 percent and among all voters it was at 56.
"In a state where a quarter of the people don't have insurance, being for more health care is a plus, not a minus," said Brantley. "I don't think [Halter] loses a single point in Arkansas being for more health care."
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UPDATE: Drew Pritt, a Democrat who ran for Lt. Governor in 2006, was the first Democrat to announce a primary challenge to Senator Lincoln. He's running on a single-payer platform and e-mails in this statement:
"683,000+ Arkansans are without health care. There's a lot of political talk from those who oppose health care reform about traditional values. Let's talk about traditional values. Traditional values are kitchen table issues and they are at the heart of this solution. It's about ensuring good paying jobs with good benefits and a livable wage. Universal, single payer health care is a right, not a privilege, that should be legislated and guaranteed to ALL Americans, not a steadily declining share of our population. I say ensure that our population is paying less to the HMO's and Pharmaceutical Corporations and receiving more in services and treatments provided, like a focus on preventative health care. This will ensure our work force, elderly, and young are protected equally. This vote for Health Care Reform is a vote for the nurse who worked 30 years of her life and now battles a continual blood infection in her legs. This vote for Health Care Reform is a vote for the single mother who works one job then works a second part time job and prays her kids don't get sick from the H1N1. This vote for Health Care Reform is a vote for people like me, survivors of cancer, who are told we cannot have health care, without paying exceedingly high deductibles and co-pays, because it's a pre-existing condition. Every hour, Americans are going bankrupt, because of the ever-increasing health care costs. 78% of them have health care coverage. This is not a time for partisan politics. This is a time for leaders, 60 leaders in fact, to ensure that every American citizen has health care. I am running for U.S. Senate because every working American deserves health care. Every American deserves the peace of mind to know that they and their loved ones, are protected. For me, running for U.S. Senate, this issue is the embodiment of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, upon which the very foundation of our nation is established."