I’ll be touring northwest, north-central and northeast Arkansas today with Cong. Tom Cotton (R), as he begins his statewide Senate campaign tour. On Thursday, I’ll be traveling part of the day with Sen. Mark Pryor (D) as he makes stops around the state.

This will be a casual exercise. I’ll throw some timeline posts up throughout the day to give you some color of how Cotton is received by supporters and protestors, comments he makes to voters, and I’ll share some conversations we have on-the-record as we drive from locale to locale.  I’ll do the same with Pryor tomorrow.

I don’t expect we’ll get into pointed policy discussions since we do a lot of that in our TV programs.  I’m aiming to explore some aspects of Cotton and Pryor that don’t typically find their way into standard interviews.  I expect we’ll talk about several policy topics that come up throughout the day as they interact with Arkansans, some campaign logistics and events as we tour, and a few personal thoughts – serious and not-so-serious.

Check back periodically throughout the day at this post or drop me a line at roby@talkbusiness.net or via my Twitter handle – @RobyBrock

Keep it professional please.

6:50 am – Fayetteville.  On KNWA, Cotton wastes little time explaining why he’s better suited to be a U.S. Senator than Pryor. In an interview with news anchor J.R. Davis, Cotton says it was “sad” that Pryor had to start campaigning against him before he even entered the race.

In response to critics who say Cotton is too ambitious, the new Senate candidate said he viewed that as a positive.

“Some people say I’m a young man in a hurry. With the problems we have, we need someone in a hurry,” he said. “Some people say I haven’t been in Washington long enough, but I’ve been there long enough to know Washington needs to change.”

When asked about some of his controversial votes, Cotton said he follows his own principles.

“I don’t look at what anyone else is doing,” said Cotton. ” The only thing I do when I cast a vote is think about Arkansas first.”

You can watch the Cotton interview from KNWA here.

7:45 am – Springdale.  A crowd of about 80 supporters has shown up at Neal’s Cafe, a popular breakfast and lunch diner.  More than a dozen local elected officials and candidates for office are in the cafe.  The group includes Tea Party activists, Republican Party leaders, and a few non-party politically active citizens as well.

Judy Blue of Rogers said she’s not at Neal’s for breakfast, she’s here to show support for Cotton.

“I like him because he’s conservative. I like him because he’s right on line with my views,” Blue said.

State Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale) said its notable that Cotton’s first day on the campaign trail landed him in Republican-rich northwest Arkansas.

“In this area of the state, there’s a lot of Tom Cotton supporters, a lot of Tom Cotton fans,” Woods said. “I think it’s great to have a statewide candidate here in northwest Arkansas.”

In introducing Cotton to the audience, Woods said a few years ago he and several others tried to convince Cotton to run for state representative. “I’m so glad he didn’t,” Woods joked.

In speaking to the cafe crowd, Cotton invokes President Obama at least 10 times in a 4-minute stump speech. In what has been and will likely be a repetitive campaign theme, Cotton says Pryor votes with the President 90% of the time.

“Do you agree with Barack Obama 90% of the time?” Cotton asks the crowd.

“We need a Senator who will stand up to Barack Obama. We’ve been his staunchest opponents in the House, but the Senate has been his strongest ally,” Cotton said.

While working the crowd, Cotton visited one-on-one with a young lady who supported the Senate immigration bill.  Cotton explained his opposition to the measure.  The two had a civil conversation and agreed to disagree.

10:12 am – Alpena (Boone County).  Pit stop at the Red X-Press convenience store at the Highway 412/62 merger.

As any good politician would do, Cotton asks the sales clerks for their votes.

They said they’d think about it.

11:54 am – Mountain Home (Baxter County).  One of the wealthiest counties in Arkansas and a population hub centered on retirees and tourism, Cotton stopped at the Mountain Home Western Sizzlin to visit with a room of about 60 supporters.

As he worked a buffet room, Cotton’s first conversation was with U.S. Navy veteran Jessie Soapes, who exchanged stories with Cotton on his travels around the world.  A second conversation was with Rex Tullis, a younger voter who showed up to learn more about Cotton.  His first question was where Cotton stood on the Second Amendment and gun control legislation.

Cotton said he was opposed to any new controls, which easily satisfied Tullis’ concerns.  “The Second Amendment is every bit as important as the First Amendment,” Cotton said.

In speaking to the group, Cotton returned to his earlier themes of criticizing Washington D.C.’s power culture and Mark Pryor’s support for Obamacare.

“Mark Pryor doesn’t put Arkansas first, he puts Barack Obama first,” Cotton said to a head-nodding, enthusiastic and vocal audience.

A developing comic line in Cotton’s stump speech involves Medicare and the age of many of the older voters in the groups he is speaking to.

“I don’t think any of you in this room are old enough to qualify for Medicare,” Cotton says to some laughter.  He then peels into Pryor, who commented on health care reform in a northwest Arkansas TV interview Tuesday.

“Just yesterday, he [Pryor] said in northwest Arkansas that Obamacare was ‘an amazing success,’” Cotton tells the group.  “I’ll let all of you judge for yourself if it is a success story.”

He fielded additional questions on student loans, a potential government shutdown, the United Nations, and his farm bill vote.  Cotton asked the group for time, volunteer hours and campaign money.

12:20 pm – Mountain Home. An audience member asked about the Arkansas legislature’s recently enacted private option, which uses Medicaid expansion funds under the Affordable Care Act to subsidize low income health insurance plans. Cotton’s political director, State Rep. John Burris (R-Harrison), was one of the architects of the state plan.

Said Cotton when asked about his views on the private option:

“I’m focused on what I can do in Washington, which is repeal Obamacare entirely. If we repeal Obamacare entirely, we don’t have to worry about it at the state level anymore. I will say that they [the state legislature] did something very different than what Mark Pryor voted for. Mark Pryor voted for a law, Obamacare, that would mandate the states to expand their Medicaid system. And if they didn’t, what would happen? They wouldn’t just lose the additional Medicaid funding, they would lose the entire Medicaid funding. That’s what Mark Pryor voted for. That was so outrageous, such an infringement of state’s sovereign powers that the Supreme Court declared that part of Obamacare unconstitutional. So I’m focused on trying to repeal Obamacare entirely and return more power to the states and to doctors and patients. But what Mark Pryor did was beyond the pale of voting for Obamacare.”

5:10 pm – Jonesboro. Cotton still maintained high energy in his fourth and final stop of the day in Jonesboro. The crowd at the local Western Sizzlin numbered about 50, including a large number of younger college-age supporters.

Northeast Arkansas has seen a growing number of Republican growth in the last two election cycles. First District Cong. Rick Crawford (R ) is a Jonesboro resident and Republicans have been competitive and won local elections since 2010.

Joe and Judy McGrath of Jonesboro are Sen. John Boozman (R ) supporters. They showed up today to meet Cotton for the first time. Self-described conservatives, the McGraths said the U.S. Senate needs to be in Republican control and they felt Cotton – from what they know of him – represents their political viewpoints.

“I haven’t met him until today, but I just agree with his politics. He’s a pro-veteran, pro-life, smaller government, less taxes conservative – he’s my kind of guy,” said Joe McGrath.

“I’m excited. We need somebody else as a Senator,” his wife Judy said. “We don’t need a rubber stamp for Obama.”

John Cooper, a Jonesboro retiree running for House seat 59, currently held by term-limited Democrat Butch Wilkins, introduced Cotton. He said he’s “thrilled” about Cotton’s Senate bid. Cooper said he’s not worried that Democrats will try to tag Cotton as “too extreme.”

“I’m not concerned about that at all, I think he’s what we need,” Cooper said. “I think this region is switching to a more conservative outlook on things and I think Tom will fit in excellent with that.”

Cotton repeated many parts of his stump speech from the day – including his assertion that he has proven he’s willing to stand up to Washington power brokers and his own party’s leadership.

One supporter asked how Cotton planned to counter a Democratic advantage over Republicans of out-organizing and having a superior voter turnout model seen in the Obama 2012 campaign nationally. Cotton disclosed that the Republican National Committee has made “an early commitment” to Arkansas to boost GOP voter registration, identification and organization.

We’re heading back to Little Rock and I’ll pull together a story for the weekend that captures some of our direct conversations from the day.

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