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Politics and strategy

Posted: July 16, 2014 at 5 a.m.

Tom Cotton’s campaign has portrayed Mark Pryor as ducking a debate on statewide television.

And in recent days I’ve taken to referring to Pryor as “mealy-mouthed” in the matter of the Hobby Lobby case.

I can now report that both assertions are inaccurate.

Let’s cover the debate matter first.

Erik Dorey, Pryor’s deputy campaign manager, told me Monday that he had declined to date to allow the Cotton campaign to goad him into a public spat over debates and their formats. We’ll run our own campaign, especially since we seem to be doing it pretty well, he told me.

But he said that, since I’d asked and intended to write on the matter, he could tell me that the Pryor campaign had agreed weeks ago to participate in a statewide television debate in October as part of the Arkansas Educational Television’s usual fall array of debates.

Cotton’s people have been obsessing on a debate proposed by KATV, Channel 7, that would offer a segment of direct interplay between the candidates.

Is it Pryor’s thought to do only the AETN debate? Or is he simply holding out that prospect for negotiating leverage on the format to be used for Channel 7’s or any other?

Yes, no, maybe. We’ll see. Or so Dorey essentially said.

This to-do represents a fairly standard phase in a big-time campaign.

One candidate demands a debate anytime anyplace by any format. The other plays hard to get.

What’s a little odd here is that Cotton’s campaign cites Republican polls and crows that it’s well-ahead. Yet it seems desperate for the possible game-change of a debate.

There is a simple explanation: Cotton is not actually ahead.

Pryor has a proud heritage of finessing debates. His politically legendary father, David, got pestered for debates by Republican Ed Bethune in the race for the U.S. Senate in 1984.

David Pryor told Bethune at one point that he’d run his race and Ed could run his.

Pryor ended up giving Bethune a debate … on statewide radio.

And Pryor won it.

Bethune kept referring to what people were saying in the coffee shops. So Pryor said he was worried that Ed was drinking too much coffee. I was there, and that’s all I recall.

Now to the Hobby Lobby matter and Pryor’s being mealy-mouthed no longer:

I refer to the U.S. Supreme Court’s lamentable 5-4 ruling giving Hobby Lobby corporate freedom of religion to deny personal freedom of religion to female employees by limiting their insured contraceptive devices to ones the Hobby Lobby owners found morally acceptable.

A key basis for the ruling was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 prohibiting legal applications that would violate religious persons’ freedoms.

What those five men of the U.S. Supreme Court did was make Hobby Lobby a person, thus protected by that law.

So Democrats in the U.S. Senate are expected to take up a bill today to exempt contraception from that law. In other words, the court’s granting of corporate freedom of religion to Hobby Lobby under that law wouldn’t matter if that law specifically removed contraception from its application.

It’s a political tactic. Democrats believe the issue to be a winner for them with women in widening the gender gap. Republicans will almost certainly filibuster the bill to stop its consideration without the unattainable 60 votes.

I inquired of Pryor’s office how he intends to vote both on cloture and the bill itself.

I was told that he intends “of course” to vote for cloture.

As for the bill itself, I was sent this statement from the senator: “I believe women should control their own health-care decisions, not employers or insurance company bureaucrats. This bill allows women and their families to make health-care decisions in accordance with their own religious beliefs.”

So we are left to conclude as follows: That’s not mealy-mouthed and the gender gap is real and important to Pryor.

John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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