Little Rock lawyers Leslie Rutledge and David Sterling don't differ much ideologically as they seek the Republican nomination for Arkansas attorney general. Both are vowing to use the office to fight the federal government, and say they'll continue to defend the state's same-sex marriage ban, abortion restrictions and voter ID law as they're being challenged in court.
The two are instead locked in an increasingly acrimonious fight over each other's experience and conservative bona fides as they approach Tuesday's primary runoff election, the only statewide contest on the ballot.
Rutledge, 37, a former lawyer for the Republican National Committee and ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee, finished first in the May 20 primary against Sterling and civil-rights attorney Patricia Nation. But she fell short of the majority needed to secure the nomination outright. Sterling, 45, is a former assistant city manager of Hope who has worked in private practice for the past 15 years.
The winner of Tuesday's election will face Democratic nominee state Rep. Nate Steel of Nashville and Libertarian nominee Aaron Cash this fall. Democratic Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is barred by term limits from seeking re-election this year.
Rutledge has enjoyed a fundraising advantage over Sterling and has the backing of top GOP figures such as Huckabee and former U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt. But Sterling has been boosted by the assistance of outside groups. One group, Judicial Crisis Network, has been airing a television spot and sending mailers praising Sterling for proposing a "Stand Your Ground" law and chiding Rutledge for not advocating a similar measure. Stand Your Ground laws allow a citizen to use deadly force in self-defense instead of retreating.
"Arkansas Families need a 'Stand Your Ground Law', but Leslie Rutledge stands with Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Eric Holder," one of the mailers by the group says, referring to the U.S. House Democratic leader and attorney general.
Rutledge accused the group of "spreading lies" about her record and has denounced the ads. Sterling has said he didn't coordinate with the group or know about the ads before they aired, and said he doesn't see anything inaccurate about them.
Rutledge, meanwhile, has criticized Sterling for representing a central Arkansas lingerie store chain that also sells adult movies and toys. Sterling represented Cupids Lingerie in a 2009 lawsuit the company filed against former managers who it accused of violating a non-compete agreement.
"He chose to take money from the pornography industry, and I think it's a contradiction of his being able to aggressively go after Internet predators if you've been the paid lawyer for and taken money from the pornography industry," Rutledge said.
Sterling called Rutledge's criticism offensive, and said representing Cupids doesn't make him a supporter of the porn industry. He declined to go into specifics about the case, citing client-attorney confidentiality.
"Now she's attacking my character, which is pretty despicable," Sterling said.
Sterling, in turn, has criticized Rutledge for voting in five Democratic primaries and for a $104.50 donation to the state Democratic Party.
"She's saying one thing and she's doing something different," Sterling said. "She's running as a lifelong Republican, but she's given money to Democrats and voted for Democrats. I've never done that."
Rutledge said she voted in the Democratic primaries so she could have a say so in races in which there weren't Republicans running. She said the donation was for a ticket to Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's 2007 inaugural ball, something she didn't know at the time would be considered a donation to the party.
"I think he's just grasping at straws by trying to attack my Republican credentials," Rutledge said.
The two have also clashed over Sterling's proposal to restart executions in the state by using the electric chair while Arkansas' lethal injection law is being challenged in court. Sterling has said the electric chair, which hasn't been used in Arkansas since 1990, is a viable option for carrying out the death penalty. Rutledge has called the proposal irresponsible, noting that Arkansas' electric chair is currently sitting in a museum.