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Incumbents Can't Rest Easy

Pols Are Finding That Threats Can Come From Anywhere This Cycle -- Especially Out Of Left Field

As she braces for a tough primary challenge, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., could learn a lesson from an unlikely source: Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) crushed his main primary challenger, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, on Tuesday because he moved quickly to define both the race and his rival.

Indeed, Perry is stronger today precisely because he confronted the formidable threat that Hutchison once posed. By defining "Kay 'Bailout' Hutchison" quickly and effectively last year as an overly accommodating moderate, Perry helped to define himself and improve his once shaky prospects for a third full term. Perry took 51 percent of the GOP primary vote Tuesday, avoiding a runoff.


If Charlie Crist had painted former state House Speaker Marco Rubio as a "career politician" six months ago, would Rubio be a hero of the Tea Party movement today?

It's a lesson other candidates could heed during a particularly tumultuous election year. In a cycle marked by a high number of tight primary fights, incumbents and front-runners around the country are struggling in part because they neglected early on to define rivals they once viewed as also-rans.

If Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), for example, had painted former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) as a "career politician" six months ago, would Rubio be a hero of the Tea Party movement today? It would have been easy for Crist to define Rubio by noting that he's an attorney whose main job for more than a decade has been as a state lawmaker and locally elected commissioner. Enjoying positive poll numbers, establishment backing and a hefty fundraising edge last year, Crist declined to do so. Instead, after Crist allowed Rubio to define him as an Obama sympathizer, polls have reversed themselves and the governor's fundraising edge has narrowed.


If Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) had run TV ads last fall attacking ophthalmologist Rand Paul's (R) opposition to military spending and the Iraq war, would Grayson, the handpicked choice of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., face the same steep climb today? Grayson ran that exact ad last week. But it may be too late. Paul -- who, like his father, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is a libertarian whose views on many key issues fall outside the conservative mainstream -- now enjoys the clear momentum.

Lincoln, meanwhile, will spend the next 11 weeks staring down a challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D), who said he's already raised $1 million for a campaign he launched Monday. Halter's goal is simple: run an "outsider" campaign that paints Lincoln as a creature of the dreaded capital. "Washington is broken.... Gridlock, bickering and partisan games while unemployment is at a 25-year high," he says in a video that appears on his new campaign Web site. "Enough's enough. It's past time to put more Arkansas values in Washington."

Like Rubio, however, Halter may be reluctant to highlight certain aspects of his resume, including the seven years he spent working in -- you guessed it! -- Washington.

The incumbent who has most closely followed the Perry playbook is probably Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who moved quickly last month to discredit former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) as an arrogant carpetbagger whose centrist voting record in the House was outside the mainstream of New York Democrats. This week, following polls that showed she continued to hold wide leads and high favorable ratings, Ford announced he wouldn't challenge her for the Senate nomination.


The lesson is simple: In a year when voters are restless, front-runners ignore opponents -- even minor ones -- at their own peril.

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