Republican candidate and frontrunner for Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson says Arkansas is much different since his last run for the state’s top elective post and that he has what it takes to win this time around.

“I joke that Asa hasn’t changed, but the state’s changed,” Hutchinson said in a Talk Business Arkansas interview on Sunday night (March 24).

In 2010 and 2012, Republicans made great strides at the federal, state and local levels winning all but one federal office and capturing legislative majorities for the first time since Reconstruction.

Hutchinson – a former Third District Congressman and three-time failed candidate for statewide office – said he will run strong in the GOP primary and the general election, making him the most formidable candidate in 2014.  A recent Talk Business-Hendrix College poll showed him leading potential Democratic candidates, Bill Halter (47-31%) and Mike Ross (43-38%).

“When you look at competing in a Republican primary, we feel comfortable where we are. I think the question is: do you have the right values for this state and can you win in November? If you look at those two questions, I think they will answer that we have the right values and we’ve got the best chance to win in November,” he said.

Hutchinson, who is already to be challenged in the GOP primary by Curtis Coleman, says others could still jump in the race. He plans to campaign vigorously and is open to multiple debates.

“I do not desire to have a bitter Republican primary. I don’t think we will. I want to have a campaign about ideas,” he said.

He’s generally complimentary of the man who beat him in 2006, Gov. Mike Beebe (D), who enjoys high job approval ratings from Democrats, Independents and even Republican voters.

“There’s always areas where you’d disagree and would do differently, but by and large, the first responsibility of a Governor is to manage the state, and he has managed the state from a financial standpoint, from a leadership standpoint. There’s some things I disagree with and a lot that I’ve agreed with him on. I think we should applaud his efforts,” Hutchinson said of Beebe.

The only announced Democratic candidate for Governor in 2014 is former Lt. Governor Bill Halter, who rolled out his Arkansas Promise college scholarship program on last week’s Talk Business Arkansas program.

Calling it “creative,” Hutchinson complimented Halter for a “serious policy initiative,” but said he’s doubtful that it is the best path for encouraging more college participation.

“Is this a solution? I have some hesitancy about the costs of it and embarking on an expansion of the lottery scholarship that is already shaky, I would say,” Hutchinson said. “I’m not a maybe in support of it, but he [Halter] is addressing a serious problem and we need to come up with a plan that encourages work, [and] does encourages responsibility with our young people as well.”

NRA SAFE SCHOOLS INITIATIVE
Hutchinson also revealed more details on a school safety initiative that he’s been spearheading for the National Rifle Association in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newton, Connecticut.

Hutchinson was tapped by the powerful pro-gun lobby to oversee its National School Shield Program, which is planning to reveal its findings at a press conference next month.

“We’re drawing our recommendations to a conclusion, we’re actually writing the report. I have a news conference scheduled for April 2 in Washington announcing the results of our school safety initiative and recommendations. We’re going to follow it with a news conference here in Arkansas with some Arkansas school administrators that I’ve worked with,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson contends there will be some “very serious” recommendations to help local school districts keep children safe. One of the major recommendations will be to create an online self-assessment tool.

“One of the challenges that the schools have is you can go out, if you want to increase safety, and hire an expert, a consultant, and pay them a lot of money,” he said. “Our rural schools are challenged by funding and so we’re going to have an online assessment tool that a school will go on in a secure fashion. They can help answer a questionnaire and develop and do their own facility assessment for safety and try to lead them to some best practices. That’s a practical tool we hope to implement.”

Hutchinson also said there would be “model training programs” and potential changes to federal law that his independent assessment team will recommend.

“There’s going to have to be some changes in the law that we’ll be recommending, so it’s going to be very broad in terms of the recommendations. And this is a serious initiative – even while I continue and run for Governor – this is going to be an ongoing program for the NRA focusing on school safety,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson also discussed the state’s Big River Steel billion-dollar superproject, health care reform, entrepreneurship, and tax competitiveness. You can watch his full interview below.

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