OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The scripted campaigner

Sarah Huckabee Sanders has now made clear what we suspected.

She will proceed to the election without talking to Arkansas reporters except the three on a panel Friday at a tightly restricted debate on public television that she'll do just to say she did a debate.

Over the weekend, this newspaper related that, in its preparation of a traditional late-stage election roundup, Sanders would accept questions only in writing and answer only in writing.

Direct contact risks unscripted exchange. And she may think reporters have cooties.

A few might.

Roby Brock, hosting the "Capitol View" program Sunday morning on KARK-TV, devoted most of the program to interviewing Democratic nominee Chris Jones. He explained that Sanders had just given him a final rejection after 28 requests since January 2021.

Brock is one of those amiable guys who smiles and asks spontaneous and informed follow-up questions.

There is a point to be made about all that, and an observation to be related.

The point is that Sanders' tactic amounts to solid front-runner message discipline. She is a political operative--a "superior political athlete," as her Ouachita political science professor Hal Bass put it--and she knows her votes come from ad nauseam unilateral expression of disdain for Joe Biden, national liberalism and inflation.

The observation is that I'm hearing a percolation of criticism of that steady tactic.

A high school buddy of thoughtful conservatism and Donald Trump-disapproving evangelicalism emails that he's looking seriously at Jones. An old boy at my wife's high school reunion over the weekend, describing himself as a Searcy County Republican from way back, and a genuine conservative who loves Trump's policies but not his behavior, said he's offended that Sanders acts like she's running against Biden when the issue is Arkansas, or ought to be.

I acknowledge that those are but two cases in point, and, if forced to predict, I'd say Sanders ends up with both votes.

That's her cold, rigid point. She's running to win, not get glowing reviews in my emails and class-reunion conversations.

Her polling apparently shows she's fine. If that changes, she's got millions to run an attack on Jones and peel a few points away by saying he's a liberal local Biden. One of those ads morphing Jones into Biden might be in order.

Or she might keep it simple and run an ad saying, "My Democratic opponent is concerned about the death penalty. Don't worry about me. I'll kill 'em and sleep just fine."

I must acknowledge that her written responses are not without worthy information. The problem is that we can't follow up and draw her out, which is her design.

She wants to raise teacher pay but incorporate merit pay, which pits teacher against teacher and encourages a principal's playing of favorites. She wants to introduce school choice to all Arkansas families and children, which pits school against school and invites winners and losers although the state constitutional principle, affirmed by court ruling, holds that public education must be equal, equitable and adequate.

She wants to keep some form of Medicaid expansion but introduce a work requirement, which Asa Hutchinson tried and which the federal court in the District of Columbia threw out. She may be counting on Big Daddy Trump's Supreme Court to overturn that.

Oh, and she wants to get rid of the state income tax only as we become able to absorb those lost dollars with economic growth. That's third-term Asa stuff right there.

I don't think she's altogether as right-wing as she lets on, except maybe on education, but is every bit as haughty and press-dismissive as she seems.

Having said all that, I stipulate that a mild prospect for unscripted susceptibility for Sanders exists on Friday at the AETN debate.

This year, longtime moderator Steve Barnes, a real newsman, will double as both moderator and questioning panelist. He'll only get one or two questions, but maybe he can make the most of them.

For that matter, the other two panelists--Christina Munoz and Donna Terrell--are solid, too.

I must point out, though, that the panel won't contain any newspaper riff-raff, though Barnes does write a syndicated column.

Furthermore, AETN practice is for the debaters to go afterward one at a time by a drawing-determined order into a room for press availability. But that's purely a candidate option.

Sanders has every right to send someone to that room to see who's in there waiting for her, and then, doggone it, forget to stop by.

It wouldn't be from fright, but disdain.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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