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Clinton Staffers Gear up for NYC

Campaign headquarters used to print news, now makes it - a letter from Little Rock, Ark.

IN jeans and tennis shoes or jackets and ties, zealous staff members bustle about the old Arkansas Gazette building in downtown Little Rock.

In the former newsroom on the second floor, they clip newspapers and squint into computer screens, as had the Gazette staff before the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi was swallowed last October by the rival Arkansas Democrat.

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"It's a little weird," says Maxine Parker, gazing across the newsroom from near the desk where she held down the Bill Clinton beat for nine years.

Now the Arkansas governor is running for president, the Gazette building is his national campaign headquarters, and Ms. Parker is a campaign spokesperson.

Clusters of desks are parceled among staff for handling the press, Clinton's schedule, delegate control, field operations, and so on. Radio sound bites are produced in a side room. Strategic functions like issues management are out of sight on the off-limits third floor. Elsewhere in the newsroom, the staff in "Hillaryland," as a hand-drawn sign on the wall puts it, coordinates Ms. Clinton's statements and appearances. Last week, for instance, she stood on the headquarters steps to launch a new effort - "I'm from Arkansas - Ask me about my governor!" - complete with T-shirts for residents traveling out of state.

And of course, there's "Billsville." The Clinton campaign looked dangerously in debt in May, but Parker says it raised $3 million in June. She calls the debt "very manageable."

Parker seems to have made as easy a transition as the Gazette building did from the role of news reporter to news maker and shaper. As a journalist, Parker says, she didn't consider herself a "fan" of the governor. "Did I not ever write negative things about him? No," she says, but adds that she knew that the Clinton administration was clean and had tried hard to improve the state education system and foster job creation.

Parker's final Gazette story reported the hiring of David Wilhelm to manage Clinton's campaign. Previously, Mr. Wilhelm ran Richard Daley's successful reelection bid for mayor of Chicago. Wilhelm has brought plenty of his old staff along, as attested by pennants for the Cubs and Bears that vie with Clinton posters and balloons for wall space. "If we could just get some more pizza and hotdogs down here," jokes one member of what the other staffers call the "Chicago mafia."

Last week the campaign efforts propelled Clinton to first place in a news poll - the first sign in months that the candidate could not only win the Democratic nomination but maybe even gain the confidence of the American public.

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Clinton was the early darling of the Democrats when he declared his candidacy in October. Then many things undercut his viability: the Gennifer Flowers story in January, the draft-dodging story and the lightning-bolt Ross Perot candidacy drive in February, the marijuana-use story in March. Almost mercifully the spotlight left Clinton and turned to Mr. Perot during April and May. Meanwhile, Clinton sewed up the Democratic nomination. In June, as President Bush sparred with Perot, Clinton thrust himself ba ck to the center stage of political plausibility with appearances on CBS, Arsenio Hall, and MTV, with a spat with Jesse Jackson, and with the release of an economic plan.

At Clinton headquarters, press staffer David Levy shrugged off any suggestion of jubilation over last week's rebound. "There's only one poll we're concerned about, and that's Nov. 3. We're an even-keel operation," he said.

Indeed, Clinton slipped in a subsequent poll, but only back to a dead heat with Perot and Bush.

With the Democratic convention coming up next week, the headquarters staff of 150 was focused on preparations. The staff will double after New York.

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