Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) has signaled to the White House that he will challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) if asked, knowledgeable GOP sources said Tuesday.
The Bush White House has shown a willingness to involve itself in key Senate races over the past two cycles in order to hand-select the strongest candidate, and Hutchinson, the undersecretary of Homeland Security for border and transportation security, would fill a void for the GOP in Arkansas. Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) has not made a decision on the race.
In 2002, now-Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) were both tapped as the favorites of the White House political operation and went on to win Democratic-held seats. Former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) was likewise convinced to run for Senate rather than governor by President Bush, but lost narrowly to Sen. Tim Johnson (D).
Frustrated by an inability to move its agenda through the Senate quickly, the White House has already played an influential role in recruiting for the 2004 cycle, urging Reps. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) to make Senate bids against Democratic incumbents.
Hutchinson has spoken with state party officials about the race in recent days, who sounded a more cautious note about his future plans.
State party Executive Director Mitchell Lowe said that Hutchinson is "still in a decision-making mode and is trying to weigh all of the factors."
Hutchinson is set to speak to the Arkansas Red Mass, an annual gathering of judges, lawyers and law-enforcement officials in Little Rock, on Thursday. He also made a three-day trip to the state in mid-April.
Under the Hatch Act, if Hutchinson forms an exploratory committee or announces his intention to run for the Senate, he must immediately resign his post at Homeland Security.
Hutchinson spokesman Dennis Murphy said that his boss is "100 percent focused on standing up a new department of government that is 100 days old."
The increasing momentum behind a Hutchinson candidacy comes as Huckabee finds himself embroiled in a protracted fight with the Democratic-controlled state Legislature over the state budget.
The legislative session closed April 16, and Huckabee will call a special session to try to hammer out a budget agreement starting early next month.
Huckabee has long said he will not begin to think seriously about a potential Senate candidacy until his legislative work is done.
"Huckabee in theory had first dibs on the seat," claimed Arkansas Democratic Party Executive Director Michael Cook. "If the White House or [Karl] Rove were to ask Asa to run that might kick up the dust in the Republican Party."
National Republicans cautioned that Huckabee has not yet shut the door on a bid. Sources say his close relationship with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) could influence Huckabee’s decision (they served together in the Republican Governors Association).
Both Hutchinson and Huckabee have made unsuccessful Senate bids in the past.
Hutchinson, then a U.S. attorney, challenged Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) in 1986, losing badly, 62 percent to 38 percent, in a horrible year nationally for Senate Republicans.