Boozman considers challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln

Boozman’s office declined to comment on the speculation but said it expects the congressman to make a decision within the next 48 hours.

“He is still evaluating that decision. Nothing has been finalized,” said a Boozman spokeswoman.

Boozman’s entry would be a further boon to the party after the retirement of two senior House Democrats boosted GOP hopes of defeating Lincoln.

In the last two weeks, Reps. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) and Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) both said they will retire after their terms expire next year. In the close-knit political world of Arkansas, their departures leave a void that Republicans say will hurt Lincoln's prospects.

“All these open seats are just hurting them and helping us,” said Chase Dugger, political director of the Republican Party of Arkansas.

“There’s two less congressmen campaigning out there for people to vote for Sen. Lincoln,” Dugger said. “They no longer have two incumbent congressmen that would have brought in a lot of people to the polls who always go vote for them.”

But Democrats claim it could actually be a boon to Lincoln.

“You’re going to have nominees that are going to be forced to get out the Democratic base and they’re going to be working harder to really energize their core supporters," said a Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the race. "When the Democrats run an effective field program here in Arkansas in an off-year, we can match our presidential performance numbers, and historically we’ve done that.”

For weeks now, observers have pointed to Lincoln’s poll numbers as a sign that Democrats won’t be able to hold her seat in 2010.

In a Mason-Dixon & Research Inc. poll released last week, 37 percent of respondents supported Lincoln and 43 percent said they would vote for former state Sen. Jim Holt (R). A recent Rasmussen Reports poll showed state Sen. Gilbert Baker (R) leading Lincoln by 12 points.

“I’m afraid it’s going to be a tough reelection,” said Art English, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Lincoln is on the receiving end of a backlash against the Democrats’ Washington agenda, he noted. “It’s healthcare — a lot of people are just mad as hell at the process up in Washington. That’s been a real problem for her."

Republicans agreed. “It’s not so much her as it is the liberal agenda being presented by the president and the Democrat majorities in Congress,” Dugger said.

But the GOP has its own problems. The state party says there are nine candidates (not including Boozman) competing for the nod to face Lincoln — including Holt, who ran against her in 2004.

“It doesn’t matter who these other guys are, they have to beat Jim Holt,” the Democratic strategist said.

Many GOPers see Boozman as a potential front-runner.

But the five-term congressman supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which could hamper his appeal to conservative voters angry about government spending, the Democratic strategist pointed out. “If Boozman gets in, they’re going to hang that TARP vote around his neck.”

Republicans say the number of candidates is actually a good thing, as it compounds their anti-Lincoln message.

“We’ve got nine conservative candidates who are all out working hard, saying all the many reasons why Sen. Lincoln shouldn’t be reelected, and that’s a good thing for us because the more people we’ve got saying the better and more often our message is going to be heard,” Dugger said.

Lincoln could benefit from her role as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Agriculture is a $15 billion industry in the Natural State, making up roughly 20 percent of its economy. Lincoln received the chairmanship late last year after Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinOrrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate Democrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Iowa) moved to the helm of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee following the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

At the time, many pundits speculated it would boost her reelection chances. But her constituents may not be aware of her new role.

“I don’t think a lot folks have been educated about that at this particular point,” said English.

Lincoln has some $5 million cash on hand, after bringing in $1.3 million in the fourth quarter, according to her campaign. Some of the donations have come from the traditional rainmakers in the state, including timber companies, Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and Tacala, which operates many of the Taco Bell franchises in the southwest. Many of these donors have an interest in Lincoln's leadership role on the Ag Committee.

“The people that traditionally support the winners here in Arkansas are with her,” said the Democratic strategist. The idea of Lincoln retiring “is just wishful thinking on the part of her potential opponents.”

Democrats aren’t taking the situation lightly.

“The campaign realizes they have a real challenge on their hands,” English said. “I don’t think she’s as bad off as people say. I think when people get to compare what she’s basically done for Arkansas — she’s done a lot for agriculture — I really think she has a chance to turn it around.”

-- This article was updated at 12:17 p.m.