LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The prospect of Donald Trump's unpopularity hurting Republicans in deeply red states drew a crowded fight for the Democratic nomination for a U.S. House district in central Arkansas, a seat once considered a party stronghold. In their first televised debate, the four Democratic hopefuls kept their focus on the Republican incumbent they're trying to unseat — not each other.
The Democratic challengers in Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District mostly steered clear of each other during their first debate last week and instead targeted Republican Rep. French Hill and the GOP's majority in Congress on issues including gun control, taxes and health care. The debate, hosted by Little Rock television station KATV and Talk Business and Politics, showed that the hopefuls are still introducing themselves to voters and not trying to highlight their differences with one another.
The first strike, in fact, was directed not at Hill or any other candidate. Gwen Combs, a Little Rock teacher seeking the nomination, thanked KATV's owner Sinclair Broadcast Group for "deviating from biased programming," an apparent reference to a video showing anchors at Sinclair stations across the country reading a script criticizing "fake" news stories.
"I am a fighter," Combs said. "I believe in fighting for the people and that we need people in Washington who have their priorities straight. My priorities put Arkansans first."
State Rep. Clarke Tucker, whose candidacy raised hopes among some top Democrats that the 2nd District race could be competitive, touted his work in a predominantly Republican Arkansas Legislature on issues such as health care.
"I've done all this work in a Republican supermajority legislature because I have worked to build trust and build relationships with members of both parties to actually get something done for the people I represent," Tucker said.
Jonathan Dunkley, the director of operations for the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service, touted himself as the most "progressive" among the four Democratic hopefuls.
"I am a winner, not just a fighter. We win," he said. "We get things accomplished on behalf of the people, and that's all I've done as a professional here in this community, and that's what I'll continue as I go to Washington to represent your interests."
Paul Spencer, a schoolteacher who has pushed for campaign finance reforms in Arkansas, said he wanted to help a district that he said is "woefully" underrepresented in Washington right now.
"Being angry isn't enough, and having ideas that are born of common sense, decency and a wish that everybody can share in the prosperity that is the United States is what we're about, and that's what we're going to be advocating," Spencer said.
On most issues, there doesn't seem to be much daylight between the candidates. They've opposed tax cuts enacted by Trump and Republicans in Washington, and criticized Congress for inaction on measures to address gun violence.
The biggest fault line, for now, among the candidates could be health care. All four criticized Hill and other Republicans for voting to dismantle the federal health care law. Three of the hopefuls said they support a universal health care system such as "Medicare for all." But Tucker distanced himself from that idea, saying he'd prefer a proposal that would allow people the option of buying into Medicare.
"Right now there are 150 million Americans or more who receive health insurance through their employer and I think there are a lot of Americans who like that coverage, like that care that they get," Tucker said. "I would be hesitant to move to a system that displaces that entirely."
Dunkley, however, said he doubted many Americans were happy with the insurance they receive through their jobs.
"We're looking for a way for people to be free, to have choices and not these archaic systems where you tie your health care to your job," Dunkley said.
That exchange may be a preview of what's to come as the candidates shift their focus more to each other as the May 22 primary approaches.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo