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Asa in the Hole?

Hutchinsonís Trips Home Fuel Speculation

Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), the undersecretary of Homeland Security for border and transportation security, is scheduled to make a handful of appearances in the Razorback State over the next month, fueling speculation that he may be weighing a challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D).

Hutchinson was expected to tour the Pine Bluff Arsenal, a military manufacturing facility, on Saturday after announcing more than $11 million in federal dollars to further the implementation of its domestic preparedness program. Lincoln was not invited to that event, according to a knowledgeable Democratic source. Later in the day, Hutchinson planned to travel to Little Rock to meet with homeland security officials at the state capitol. On Sunday, Hutchinson will speak at the University of Arkansas.

Hutchinson will participate in a transportation summit Monday in Fayetteville along with Rep. John Boozman (R), who replaced Hutchinson in the House, and Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.).

Hutchinson represented the stateís 3rd district from 1996 until August 2001, when he resigned to become the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Last month Hutchinson was named to his new post at the Department of Homeland Security.

"I personally asked him to come down," said Boozman. When asked whether Hutchinsonís trip to the state meant that he was considering a Senate run, Boozman said: "Everything I understand is that he is happy in his job."

Hutchinson will return to the state May 1 to serve as the keynote speaker at the Arkansas Red Mass, an annual gathering of judges, lawyers and law-enforcement officials in Little Rock.

"He is 100 percent immersed in trying to set up the new department," said spokesman Dennis Murphy.

Some Democrats expressed skepticism that Hutchinsonís trips to the state were solely for official business.

"I would question whether Arkansas would be the center of the universe for homeland security," said Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.).

Regardless of Hutchinsonís plans, his presence in his home state has excited some Republicans about the prospect of his candidacy.

"He would be very competitive," said Mitchell Lowe, executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party.

Hutchinson is one of many Bush administration officials rumored to be considering campaigns in 2004 and beyond.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez has been mentioned as a potential candidate for Senate in Florida this cycle or for Sunshine State governor in 2006. Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels is expected to run for Indiana governor next year. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is seen as a possible California gubernatorial candidate in 2006.

To this point, Republicans have focused their Arkansas recruiting efforts on Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has said he will not begin considering the race until the legislative session closes later this month.

Huckabee is still the primary focus of national Republicansí recruiting efforts because of his past interest in a Senate bid, as well as his close relationship with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.).

In 1992, Huckabee, then a Baptist minister, challenged Sen. Dale Bumpers (D), losing that race 60 percent to 40 percent.

He was preparing for another race in 1996 for the seat of retiring Sen. David Pryor (D) when Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (D) resigned from office amid scandal. Huckabee, the sitting lieutenant governor, assumed the governorís office.

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