Reporting from Conway, Ark. — The cramped conference room at the Howard Johnson held a smattering of locals. They fretted about the economy, blasted Congress and brandished handmade signs smacking Goldman Sachs, their Wall Street punching bag of choice.
This was no "tea party" rally. These were Democrats. But their feelings had a lot in common with their disgruntled counterparts on the right — anti-spending, anti-bailout and, most of all, anti-incumbent. The fact that such feelings are boiling up at both ends of the political spectrum speaks volumes about the angry, topsy-turvy political climate.
The speaker was Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who is trying to unseat two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Tuesday's Democratic primary. His challenge — which irritates party leaders in Arkansas and nationally — rests on his brand of progressive populism, coupled with an appeal to voters' unhappiness with the status quo.
"There's an intense feeling out there of folks fed up with the Washington way," Halter said after the event.
A thousand miles away in Washington, Lincoln was making her own bid for the populist vote, pushing a plan to crack down on financial derivatives as part of the larger regulatory overhaul.
Her goal, as Lincoln puts it, is to make sure "Main Street won't pay the price for reckless behavior on Wall Street."
This election season, no one wants to come off as the favored candidate of special interests. Almost everyone, including incumbents, wants to run as an outsider.
But it's particularly true in Arkansas, where Lincoln is in the fight of her political career. A week before the primary, polls showed her struggling to stave off Halter.
Halter and Lincoln have both attempted to portray themselves as people-first politicians who stand up to special interests, though their campaigns have been fueled by money from labor unions, trade organizations and other advocacy groups outside the state.
The flood of cash has nationalized the race, transforming it into a test of how much damage an anti-Wall Street and anti-incumbent message can do. If an established presence like Lincoln can't survive, it suggests dire prospects not only for Democrats but for officeholders of both parties — a message reinforced by the recent ouster of longtime Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah.
Arkansas Democrats are also testing whether staking out a position left of center as Halter has done can be effective in a moderate-to-conservative state. Halter portrays Lincoln as a middle-of-the-road vacillator who stands only for compromise.
"It's a pushback against trying to be all things to all people," Halter said.
To date, unions have spent more than $4 million backing Halter, while Lincoln is now enjoying support from pro-business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Each candidate has run ads accusing the other of being a tool of special interests.
Lincoln, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that the financial support thrown Halter's way has established "an unlevel playing field."
"When somebody dumps 4 million on you in less than five weeks, it's huge. I can't compete with that," she said.
Lincoln did not help her cause during a debate last month when she suggested that a campaign contribution from Goldman Sachs was no different from one from a soybean farmer.
"Soybean farmers aren't being accused of wrecking our economy," Halter was quick to retort, and the line has resonated.
Party leaders fear that even if Halter falls short of unseating Lincoln, he'll wound her enough to make her easy pickings for the eventual Republican nominee. That's likely to be U.S. Rep. John Boozman, who is battling seven others for the GOP slot.
Halter, a former member of the Clinton administration, jumped into the Senate race after Lincoln seemed to waffle on healthcare. Progressive groups such as MoveOn.org and organized labor quickly supported Halter.
Lincoln ultimately voted for the healthcare bill but opposed both the "public option" and later the "fix" bill that passed through the reconciliation process, a dance that has sometimes been difficult to explain.
Unions were angry with Lincoln long before the healthcare showdown. She had turned against legislation to make it easier to organize workers even though she had previously cosponsored the bill.
Lincoln said was simply showing her independence.
"The unions are upset I haven't voted with them 100% of the time. MoveOn.org is not happy with me because I have not voted with them 100% of the time," Lincoln said. "You don't agree with anyone 100% of the time."
In the meantime, President Obama and former President Clinton have recorded radio ads backing Lincoln. But as a measure of how normal Democratic politics have been upended, the Service Employees International Union responded with an ad challenging Obama's assessment at every turn.
"It's a tough year. It's a crazy year," Lincoln said.