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Rankin, Jeffress launch congressional bids in Ark.

Andrew Demillo

Candidates made a head start Monday in the race for a south Arkansas congressional seat being vacated by Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, with bids launched by a Democratic senator and the Republican Party's nominee for the district last year.

State Sen. Gene Jeffress of Louann told The Associated Press he'd seek the Democratic nomination, hours after Beth Anne Rankin announced she would run again for the Republican nomination. Jeffress is the first Democrat to say he'll run for Ross' seat, while Rankin is the third Republican to announce her candidacy.

Ross, Arkansas' only Democratic U.S. House member, announced last month that he would not run for re-election next year as he prepares for a potential 2014 gubernatorial bid. His retirement and new boundaries that add traditionally Republican areas to the district have raised Republican hopes that they can win the seat.

Jeffress, a retired schoolteacher who has served in the state Legislature since 1999, said he believed the district could remain in Democrats' hands.

"I think more than anything it's a conservative district. I think it always has been," Jeffress said. "A good south Arkansas Democrat like myself has always been conservative. It's not a Republican thing. It's an American thing."

Jeffress said he planned to formally launch his campaign later this fall and had not yet started raising money. Several other Democrats have said they're considering running for the seat, but Jeffress said he wasn't expecting a crowded primary.

That's not the case for Republicans, who have at least a three-way race with Rankin's announcement Monday. The former Miss Arkansas who worked in former Gov. Mike Huckabee's administration announced her candidacy in a series of stops throughout south Arkansas. She joins Tom Cotton of Dardanelle and Marcus Richmond of Waldron in the race for the GOP nomination, and several other candidates have said they're mulling a run.

State Rep. Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado, who had been considering a run, said Monday that he would not seek the post.

Rankin, who won the nomination last year but lost to Ross in November, said she believed a competitive primary would be a good thing for the GOP.

"I know selfishly as a candidate you'd think, wow, it'd be great to not have a primary," Rankin told reporters after announcing her candidacy at the Ray Lynn Theater in downtown Hot Springs. "But you know what? That's not true. As a candidate it's a great thing to have a primary because it sharpens you as a candidate and you get out there maybe sooner than you would have normally."

Cotton, a management consultant who served with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, has already received an initial show of support from Republicans nationally. The National Republican Congressional Committee announced earlier this month that he had advanced to "On the Radar" status as part of its Young Guns program to recruit candidates for key races.

Tyler Houton, a committee spokesman, said the label was a sign that Cotton had met key organizing and fundraising goals and was not an endorsement of his bid. Houton said the program was open to other Republican candidates.

Cotton, who announced last month he was running, said he believes the other candidacies reflect how unpopular Democratic President Barack Obama remains in the district.

"We'll have a vigorous campaign to nominate the strongest candidate," he said.

Richmond, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who owns two businesses, announced his bid last week and said he believed he had a good shot at the seat despite a lack of widespread name recognition or support from national Republicans.

"I do believe I've got a chance to sneak up on some folks," he said.

The race for Ross' seat is intensified by a redistricting map that added portions of traditionally Republican northwest Arkansas to the district. It also comes after an election last year where Republicans won two longtime Democratic seats. So far, no Democrats have announced they're running for three Republican-held congressional seats in the state.

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The Associated Press