NASHVILLE — One of the first things people notice when they meet Tom Cotton is his height.
"He’s kinda tall, isn’t he?" said a woman attending a meet-and-greet at the Western Sizzlin in Nashville on Friday.
The 6-foot-5 Cotton towered over most of the people who came to the restaurant to meet the Republican candidate for Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District. Dressed in slacks, a dress shirt and a vest jacket, Cotton, 35, of Dardanelle, spent about an hour chatting with voters about his conservative politics and his background as a farmer, Harvard Law School graduate, Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and management consultant.
Cotton faces Democratic candidate state Sen. Gene Jeffress, Green Party candidate Joshua Drake and Libertarian Party candidate Bobby Tullis in the Nov. 6 general election. There is no incumbent because U.S. Rep Mike Ross, D-Prescott, is retiring from Congress.
Cotton enjoys a significant financial advantage in the race, having raised nearly $2 million, much of it spent on a massive TV ad campaign. Jeffress, meanwhile, had raised just under $84,000 as of Sept. 30; he has no paid campaign staff and has been unable to afford TV advertising.
Cotton told voters at the Western Sizzlin he wants to fight to improve the economy, reduce the national debt, repeal President Obama’s health care law, reform the tax code and loosen regulations on businesses.
During his visit, a button worn by a local resident caught his eye. The button read, "Yes, I did build my business."
"I like that," Cotton said, pointing to a button worn by Hix Smith, owner of Smith’s Ready Mix, a concrete company.
"It wasn’t built until Obama came and built it for you," Cotton joked.
"My father before me built it," Smith said. "I built on that. I plan on turning it over to my kids, and they’re going to build on that. It’s something I’m very proud of, and (Obama) made light of it."
Cotton told Smith he believes the conditions needed to grow the economy include "low but stable taxes, a balanced budget and a friendly regulatory climate that lets private employers create wealth and therefore hire more people."
Smith said later he plans to vote for Cotton because he believes he can help turn the economy around.
"We have no hope under Obama," Smith said. "Our business is about half what it was four years ago. We’ve had to reduce our fleets, turn loose employees. We’re just barely hanging on."
As he did during his victory speech upon winning the GOP primary in May, Cotton frequently cracked jokes. Talking to John and Laura Gray, owners of Howard County Ambulance Service, he said he could not remember the last time he was in an ambulance.
"I mean, I know when it was," he said. "I just don’t remember it because I was unconscious."
When Bill Hopper, who is retired from the natural gas industry, called Cotton a lawyer, Cotton joked that he is "only a recovering lawyer."
Laura Gray and Hopper said they were impressed by Cotton.
"I think he’s in touch with what’s going on in small-town Arkansas, and as a business owner that makes you feel good, that you’ve got somebody that actually knows what’s going on in your area," Laura Gray said.
Hopper said that "we need more representatives for the military in the Congress."
Though Cotton has never held elected office, Hopper said he believes his background qualifies him to serve in Congress.
"To me, somebody that’s rolled around in the system for 30 years, they’re too much a part of the system and not for the people that they’re representing," he said.
From Nashville, Cotton and two campaign aides traveled in a two-car caravan to J&J Lumber, a timber mill near Amity, where several workers asked questions about illegal immigration.
"We need to finish the border fence … and we need to ensure the Border Patrol has the agents they need, the funding the need, for both a low-tech, boots-on-the-ground solution and a high-tech solution," Cotton told the workers. "And then we need to also determine a lot of the magnets that bring illegal immigrants here."
At the same time, he said, the government should "encourage legal immigration by people with the skills we need."
Cotton joked that as soon as he was done with his visit the workers could take the rest of the day off. Owner Wes Johns objected.
"We’re short a few boards," Johns said, making Cotton laugh.
After the employees went back to work, Johns told Cotton his business has downsized because of the economy, but he said business has started to improve lately and he has been able to add a few positions.
Johns said later he plans to vote for Cotton.
"I just like his dedication. From his background I feel that he is very suited for the job," he said.
Jeffress has criticized Cotton for receiving much of his funding from out-of-state interests. Cotton said Friday that even without out-of-state money, he would be leading in fundraising.
"I’ve raised more money inside of Arkansas than any other candidate. I’ve raised more money in Ouachita County, which is Gene’s home county, than he has. And I don’t owe a debt to anyone who’s contributed anything to me," he said.
Early voting for the Nov. 6 election starts Monday.