Yesterday, I noted that a poll conducted by public-employee union AFSCME had incumbent Senator Mark Pryor ahead of his presumed competition, freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, by eight points — but with only 43% support.  That’s bad news for an incumbent, and another poll published today by Conservative Intel has even worse news for Democrats hoping to defend the seat.  As Cotton prepares to announce his candidacy later today, CI shows him narrowly edging Pryor 43/41:

A new Conservative Intel Poll of 587 likely Arkansas voters finds that even though 40 percent of Arkansas voters don’t know enough about the freshman congressman to form an opinion about him, he still leads incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D, by a narrow two-point margin — 43 percent to 41 percent.

The result is within the poll’s four-point margin of error, and so the two are technically in a statistical tie. But it’s a bad sign for Pryor, a two-term incumbent in the U.S. Senate, that he is polling so poorly against a relatively unknown opponent — 40 percent of Arkansans don’t know enough about Cotton to form an opinion.

The low numbers for Pryor are roughly consistent with a poll released earlier this week by the public employees’ union AFSCME, which showed the incumbent with similarly low levels of support (43 percent).

The poll from CI has a sample that is D+7, which is a wider split than the D+4 in Arkansas’ 2008 exit polling, so at least the survey sample doesn’t appear to be notably skewed toward the GOP.  It does feature a lower percentage of young voters than 2008 (11% compared to 17% when Pryor won his last election), and that could have some impact on these numbers, especially since older voters are significantly more conservative in Arkansas.  Without Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, though, the youth vote probably won’t be as energized.  At any rate, the sample seems fair enough, while of course remaining just a snapshot of the electorate at the moment.

The dead heat numbers of the top line are probably the best news for Pryor in this poll.  He’s underwater on job approval with a very anemic 32/42, although 26% can’t decide.  While Cotton has a +8 on favorability, 34/26 with 40% unsure, Pryor has a -2 at 38/40 with 22% undecided.  Pryor might still have some upside left in Arkansas, but Cotton has more and starts off in better position.

One way Pryor might improve his standing would be to distance himself from Barack Obama, who has a laughable 28/61 approval rating in this poll — even though 37% of respondents are Democrats. Instead, Pryor is arguing that Cotton’s opposition to Obama should be disqualifying, as it would “waste” a precious Senate seat:

Pryor recently launched his first attacks on Cotton, a first term Congressman from Dardanelle who represents the southwest corner of Arkansas. “I hope Arkansas doesn’t want to waste one of their two Senate seats,” Pryor told the Associated Press the other day. “You only get two, and I hope Arkansas doesn’t waste one of its Senate seats just to send someone to Washington to oppose a president for two years.”

At 28/61, I’d guess that Arkansans see that as a feature rather than a bug.  And since Pryor will have to explain his support of ObamaCare and the stimulus package, both of which are deeply unpopular among his constituents, the bigger question he’ll need to answer is why Arkansas voters should waste one of its Senate seats on someone who won’t oppose Obama.  Pryor is practically launching Cotton’s candidacy for him.