October 6, 2014 11:40 AM EDT

Monticello, Arkansas

It is not enough today in the south to say that individuals have a constitutional right to bear arms. No, “It is a God given right,” Rep. Tom Cotton told about 50 Tea Party and 2nd Amendment activists at the Drew County fairgrounds on a crisp October Saturday.

It is not enough for teenagers to have the right to bear arms, children do, too. Cotton, who is running for the U.S. Senate, poses with a tiny girl who has just won a pink bb rifle that is nearly taller than she is in the Tea Party raffle. “You know,” the former Army Captain tells the girl, “when I was in the Army, I had to keep my rifle at my side, at all times.” Now, he and his wife keep handguns next to their bed.

I suspect that all this could seem a bit grotesque to northerners, an overreaction to the various efforts to put a few moderate restrictions on the use and sale of guns. But in the south, it is part of an elaborate mindset, which has developed–with no small help from the National Rifle Association–over the past decade or so. All the pieces fit neatly: Crime is everywhere. You need to protect yourself. You not only have the right to carry guns, but also the right to carry concealed weapons. In Akansas, and before that in Louisiana and Mississippi, I heard women complain about their inability to carry their concealed weapons when they visit their children in New York. “I mean, New York!” A woman in Shreveport told me. (I was happy to tell her that New York was safer than most southern cities.) And on top of that, we have terrorists sneaking across the “unprotected” border. And on top of that now, we have Ebola.

The day before, Cotton had joined with Arkansas’ other members of Congress to call for a complete travel ban on flights from ebola-affected countries. “We have terrorists coming in with bombs strapped to their underpants,” Cotton told me afterward. “Do you think it’s impossible that they will start sending people infected with Ebola?” Immediately, I think of all those girls kidnapped by Boko Haram…and yeah, it’s possible.

Cotton is, obviously, very conservative, but he’s not a half-crazed firebrand. He is smart and disciplined. A lot of people in the south reflexively oppose the President’s decision to send troops to combat Ebola in Africa, but Cotton is for it: “This is the sort of mission we can do very well,” he said. “We have the medical training, the technology, the ability to organize clinics on the ground.”

Cotton is running against the Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor, an estimable moderate, but he’s got a problem. He may be opposed to gun control, “but he voted for the President’s Supreme Court nominees,” Cotton points out, “and they vote for gun control.”

I tried to catch up with Pryor. We missed each other at the Little Rock Run for the Cure–an exhilarating event that jammed downtown with thousands of people–and then he dived into debate prep, which is probably a good call. As always, debates are a telling event in high-profile political campaigns. That’s one of the reason why it’s foolish to make predictions in many of these races. The Republicans have a coherent argument–federal overreach and an unpopular President–but the individual attractiveness, and credibility, of the candidates will have an impact on how people, especially white women, vote. It always does.


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