Clinton Trying to Reconnect in Ark.

Posted March 27, 2007 at 6:47pm

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) served as first lady of Arkansas for 12 years, but so far the Democrats in the Natural State’s Congressional delegation aren’t clamoring to support her 2008 presidential bid.

None of the Arkansas’ five Democrats are offering public endorsements of Clinton at this point, with some cautioning it is too early in the process or indicating they may stay out of presidential fray altogether.

Although many agree that there is some palpable enthusiasm in Arkansas for Clinton — and some Democrats are hopeful that as the nominee she could put the socially conservative but Democratic-leaning state back in play — the extent to which the junior Senator from New York will be able to translate that good will into votes remains up in the air.

Clinton campaign aides say her work as Arkansas first lady will factor prominently into voter education as the race wears on, and they even have implemented a program that utilizes Arkansans as surrogates to spread the message about her accomplishments in the state.

The Clinton campaign is in the process of developing a group of Arkansas Ambassadors — a group of people who will travel around the state and other neighboring states talking about Clinton’s record as first lady. The group is modeled on a group of traveling surrogates who did the same thing for then-Gov. Bill Clinton (D) during his 1992 presidential bid.

“Sen. Clinton assembled an extensive record of accomplishment as first lady of Arkansas, working on education and child advocacy issues,” said Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer. “The Arkansas Ambassadors program is going to focus on reminding people about that record and talking about her plans for the future.”

One Arkansas Democratic operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while Hillary Clinton has a loyal Arkansas network in her own right — many of them women — her husband’s role in helping to woo support can’t discounted.

“There’s a loyalty to Bill Clinton that’s pretty much unmatched,” the operative said. “You can’t have Hillary without Bill. He is going to factor into her support. It’s as much about Bill as it is about Hillary in Arkansas.”

But even with Bill Clinton’s popularity in Arkansas, the state’s Congressional Democrats remain hesitant to publicly commit their support to his wife at this point.

Asked about the feelings back home regarding Sen. Clinton, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said it depends on who you talk to.

“There are a lot of people who are very excited about Sen. Clinton being in the presidential race,” he said. “There are a lot of people looking forward to helping her win.”

Clinton was first lady in Arkansas from 1978 to 1980 and then 1982 to 1992, when Bill Clinton served as governor. He was elected president in 1992.

“She has a long relationship with the state of Arkansas and the people of Arkansas,” Pryor said. “We know her in a different way.

But Pryor said because of the fact that he is up for re-election in 2008, he probably will stay out of the presidential contest completely.

He added that he often jokes by telling people, “I’m just for everybody” in the White House race — Republican and Democrat alike. He also predicted Clinton would do well overall with voters in Arkansas.

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) had kind words for Clinton and the work she did as first lady, but was coy about whether he planned to make an endorsement.

“I don’t think anybody in Arkansas is focused on a presidential race,” Ross said.

He said he had not been contacted by any of the presidential contenders or their campaigns seeking his support.

“I don’t know that my opinion carries a lot of weight with anybody,” Ross said.

And, he added: “Hillary doesn’t need anybody to show her around Arkansas.”

Ross, who represents Hope, Bill Clinton’s birthplace, and Hot Springs, where the former president grew up, also noted former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s (R) presence in the 2008 race. But despite the abundance of Arkansas ties, he said talk about the White House contest has been sparse back home. Huckabee, who left office in the beginning of this year, is considered a long-shot contender for the GOP nod next year.

Like Ross, Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) also had praise for the Clintons, but he isn’t prepared to make an endorsement.

“My friendship with the Clintons dates back to the time the former President was Governor of Arkansas. They are fine people, we are close friends and I deeply respect Hillary Clinton’s commitment to public service,” Berry said in a statement provided to Roll Call. “I believe she is a well-qualified and formidable candidate for the Presidency. However, I am not endorsing any presidential candidate at this time.”

Still, other Arkansas Democrats had less to say.

Rep. Vic Snyder (D) and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D), who is one of Clinton’s 15 female colleagues in the Senate, had no comment for this story.

In a presidential race that has been joined at an earlier point than most in recent memory, high-profile support from within a state Clinton once called home could be big boost to her campaign.

Almost all of Clinton’s Congressional support thus far is rooted in New York, which she has represented in the Senate since 2001. The only other state Clinton has significant ties to is Illinois, where she was born and raised. But she she isn’t likely to see much support from the Prairie State as long as Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) remains her top rival for the Democratic nod.

There is at least some recent evidence of the Clinton’s campaign efforts to reconnect to the couple’s Arkansas network.

Earlier this month, Clinton aides Capricia Marshall and Laura Pena traveled to Little Rock for an outreach meeting with local supporters.

Marshall, who served as White House social secretary during the Clinton administration, is a senior liaison to Sen. Clinton’s campaign and Pena is deputy director of women’s outreach.

About 100 people attended the March 10 meeting, which was hosted by Kaki Hockersmith and Max Mehlberger.

Hockersmith is a Little Rock-based decorator who has a long association with the Clintons. She designed the Arkansas governor’s mansion after Bill Clinton became governor and was commissioned by the first lady to help redecorate the White House at the start of Clintons’ tenure in Washington.

More recently, she oversaw the recreation of the Oval Office and Cabinet Room in the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.

The Arkansas Legislature recently approved moving the state’s presidential primary up to Feb. 5, making it part of what is shaping up to be a multistate national primary.

While Arkansas remains socially conservative in the mold of its other Southern neighbors, Democrats in the state have been thriving in recent years. No Republican statewide elected officials remain after last year’s elections, the state Legislature is controlled by Democrats and there is only one Republican in the state’s Congressional delegation.

Bill Clinton carried the state in both 1992 and 1996, but George W. Bush carried it in 2000, by a margin of 51 percent to 46 percent, and in 2004, by a margin of 54 percent to 45 percent.

While the state was not vigorously contested in the 2004 race — with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as the Democratic nominee — many Democrats believe that if Clinton is the party’s standard-bearer in 2008 the state once again will be competitive.

Pryor said he believes Clinton would do well there, and other Democrats might, too.

“I think people in Arkansas generally like the Democratic field,” he said. “I’ve heard pretty positive feedback on other Democrats as well.”

Little Rock-based Democratic consultant Bill Paschall said there is no question Arkansas will be contested in 2008 if Clinton is the nominee.

“Does she win solely on the last name? No,” Paschall said. “She will have to convince the voters of Arkansas that she’s in tune with Arkansas values.”

Paschall said that while Clinton will have a head start, “she doesn’t get a free pass” and will have to campaign hard in the state.

He also noted that Clinton will undoubtedly have to face the provincial attitudes of some voters.

“There will be that slice of Arkansas that questions her because she left Arkansas and moved to New York and became the Senator from New York,” he said.