LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- It's one thing to see a politician stand behind a podium and recite talking points on their Senate votes.
It's another picture entirely to see that same politician walking around cow manure, petting goats, taking a hand-writing analysis and shaking hands. Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln did just that Friday afternoon
at the Arkansas State Fair, and it offered a rare glimpse of the candidate who first won voters over 18 years ago.
This election cycle, pundits and other observers have relentlessly criticized
the embattled lawmaker, saying she has forgotten her Southern roots. They claim that she had abandoned Arkansas because she and her family own a home in Virginia and she rarely returned to the state.
Some of that might have been true. But Lincoln, fighting to save her political life, is trying to prove otherwise.
There were two Blanche Lincolns on view Friday.
Just an hour before hitting the state fair, she spoke to a group of about 100 Democratic women in the Clinton Presidential Library's Great Hall, sounding like the candidate who had given hundreds of campaign speeches -- as she has had to do over and over since spring, when she eked out a victory in a bruising Democratic primary and runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.
Dressed in a conservative blue skirt, jacket and a rust colored scarf tied around her neck, Lincoln ticked off the list of her accomplishments as the first Arkansan -- and first female -- to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee. She lobbed an attack or two at her opponent, Rep. John Boozman, whom she trails in some polls by 18 points
. She talked to reporters afterward in the library's lobby, telling them to look at Boozman's record on veterans.
She said that momentum was swinging her way. Then, without much enthusiasm, she said, "See you at the fair."
But seven miles away and 30 minutes after leaving the library, a very different Lincoln emerged -- a candidate who didn't sound like she was on automatic pilot. Lincoln had transformed completely: She wore faded blue jeans, brown work boots, a matching belt and a white cable-knit sweater with its collar turned upward. She was relaxed. She seemed human. She seemed in her element.
Her staff let her roam through the Junior Livestock Auction, where school students from around the state showed off their prized animals. As she talked to a family whose son won a ribbon for their pig, Lincoln was no longer the controlled politician. She told the couple about her twin sons. She shook hand after hand.
And she often seemed to know more about farming than some of the men in the arena.
Marion Fletcher, the state Future Farmers of America adviser, agreed. "She understands agriculture, period," Fletcher said. "She is fully supportive of producers in this state. We cannot lose her as chair of the agriculture committee. Cannot. Agriculture is the most important thing in Arkansas' economy. It's taken a long time to get this position."
People hugged Lincoln as if she were an old friend. They called her "Blanche," not "Senator Lincoln." She clearly can draw upon a must-have in Arkansas politics -- the gift for the human connection. Bill Clinton has it in spades, but Lincoln on this day wasn't far behind. If someone with the last name of, say, Jones said they were from some town, Lincoln immediately asked if they were related to someone she knew.
This is the Blanche that the state first fell in love with when she ran for Congress in 1992, taking on her old boss, Congressman Bill Alexander, in a primary battle after he got caught up in the House banking scandal. And she was down-home Blanche when she ran in 1998 against Boozman's brother, John, in her first run for Senate. In ads and on the trail during that campaign, she was often seen wearing camouflage and waders, touting her love for duck hunting.
But in 2004, given that her seat was deemed a safe one, she didn't campaign as much and the image began to fade. Now, Lincoln's future is on the line in a year where having an "R" by your name means a lot more than it did in this state that was once reliably blue. (Not to mention that she has a long voting record to defend on issues like health care reform.) Still, Arkansas loves it's retail politicians.
At the fair, Lincoln stopped in front of a pen filled with white chickens that had won a grand champion prize.
"Mighty big and pretty chickens," she said. "Sure, yes, of course, we can take a picture." She posed with a pair of girls in front of the pen and shook hands with their parents. When asked, they said they had no idea whether they will vote for Lincoln but that she was nice.
Occasionally, Lincoln reached into her back pocket and handed out a push card featuring herself smiling -- and wearing lipstick
-- with her campaign slogan, "One Tough Lady."
Young female farmers-in-training seemed smitten by Lincoln and clamored to meet her. She made time for each of them. They can't vote, but Lincoln knew their parents might.
On her way out of the dusty, stinky arena, the two-term senator grabbed a bowl of popcorn and devoured it. She paused on a ramp and told me about how the state fair held a lot of memories for her.
"There's a real sense of pride when you see those kids with their animals," she said. "This fair is a strong part of our history and heritage. Generation after generation participates in these auctions or just coming to the fair. I remember my parents hauling the kids over and we would stay at the Coachman's Inn. You know where that was, right? The pool would be closed because it'd be October, but we'd sneak in anyway."
Lincoln said she loved goats and wanted one, but her husband, Steve, would kill her if she brought one home. She pointed at a stand that sold fried Twinkies, but opted against having one as she headed to the Hall of Industry, an enclosed metal building where various businesses and agencies sponsored booths.
"Is that Blanche Lincoln?" an elderly woman whispered as the senator and her campaign entourage passed.
Lincoln did not miss a beat as she turned and said, "Yes, it is."
The woman appeared shocked and said she loved her. "I need your vote, I need your help," Lincoln stressed.
"You've got it," the woman said.
"Want to get your handwriting analyzed?" a woman asked Lincoln at a handwriting analysis booth that has been a part of the fair for decades.
"Yes, I do," Lincoln said without hesitation, signing a card.
The woman stuck the card into the gigantic computer that lit up like a contraption from a sci-fi movie. Lincoln's results emerged on computer paper. She belted out a laugh like a kid, but didn't share the results with reporters. (I spied a few tidbits, however:
Her lucky day is Friday. Her lucky numbers: 3, 6, 9. Her color is pink.)
"Pink is okay, but my favorite color is blue," she said.
She stopped by the Hyla U.S. Gassman booth, which featured an air tank blowing wads of money. The game: Guess how much money was floating around and win free gas. Lincoln studied the tank for more than five minutes. She thought aloud about the math and finally guessed $652. (Winners were to be announced after the fair closed.)
Nick Cain and Josh Brock, who manned the booth, said Lincoln was the only politician that they had seen during the week. "She talked to us when no one else, politician or just a regular person, has," Brock said.
Both he and Cain are registered voters and Lincoln impressed them.
Lincoln leisurely worked the crowd. Many along the way declared their support for her. Maybe Southerners are too nice to tell a politician to their face that they are voting for the opponent. Or perhaps Lincoln has more support than the polls show.
Women, and especially young girls, sought her out. One shy little girl said that she wanted to be like Lincoln when she grew up. This side of Lincoln as role model is seldom seen behind the Washington façade.
"You can [do] this job, too," Lincoln said, bending to get eye level with her. "I don't have a law degree. I was going to be a nurse. Instead, I decided to do something for my country."