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State Struggles Prepped Clinton For National Bid

Democrat standard-bearer walked tightrope between business growth and preservation of environment

CHEERING crowds greet Bill Clinton at each stop on his Rust Belt bus tour, attaching faces and voices to the 20 percent statistical advantage the Democratic candidate currently enjoys over President Bush.

But Governor Clinton knows that the post-convention bounce that he is riding now will be offset by a similar one for Mr. Bush when the Republicans hold their convention in August.

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And three weeks ago, Vice President Dan Quayle demonstrated that Republicans can draw enthusiastic crowds in Clinton's home state. Mr. Quayle explained, to the apparent satisfaction of a packed Rotary Club audience, why President Bush broke his pledge on taxes.

Meanwhile, the daily Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dished up an unenthusiastic series examining Clinton's record. Its columnists needled him for campaign-related absences with remarks like "when Clinton was governor" and urged him to resign.

On the street, the most frequently voiced sentiments were a muted affection for Clinton, hesitant praise for the distance Arkansas has boot-strapped upward during his tenure, and unease over how far mediocrity remains beyond the state's grasp.

Arkansans, however, are quick to advise visitors that politically sour grapes are easier to obtain than objective assessments in their small state.

Residents hadn't cared in the least that Arkansas ranked last in various social and economic indexes until Clinton's presidential quest attracted the national spotlight, notes Robert Savage, chairman of the political science department at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Despite the new sensitivity, he finds that Clinton's partisans and detractors are "digging in" rather than changing their minds.

"The Democrat-Gazette has never been particularly kind," cautions Maxine Parker, a spokeswoman for the Clinton campaign.

Unsurprisingly, former Republican Gov. Frank White, who defeated Clinton in the 1981 gubernatorial race, cheerfully blasts the governor's record. "Sure he's done some good things, but Arkansas continues to lag.... Poverty is as rampant as the day I left office 10 years ago."

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Mr. White points to the legislature's 10-to-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans as proof that the governor should be able to pass any program he wants, overlooking the fact that, as a poor state, Arkansas adores its employers and elects a legislature that caters to their needs.

Meanwhile, the state constitution hobbles the governor. Vetoes are easily overridden. Tax increases are tough to pass.

Whether Democrat or Republican, legislators squash proposals to tax or regulate businesses more, says John Brummett, political editor of the Arkansas Times. "I don't think you can overstate the inappropriate influence of business on our legislators," he says.

When the legislature breaks for the day, Mr. Brummett notes, a member friendly to the poultry industry announces, "The Chicken House is open." Up to 50 of the 135 representatives and senators reconvene a block away at the Arkansas Poultry Federation headquarters for free food and drink. For them, "that's home after the legislature adjourns," Brummett says.

Some members of the part-time legislature draw paychecks as industry lobbyists, a relationship that is still legal and didn't even have to be disclosed until 1988. "They do enough for regular folks to where it looks good," says Sandra Key, president of the Urban League of Arkansas.

In his first term, Clinton aggressively (arrogantly, conservatives say) crossed business interests on issues like the environment and taxes - and was defeated by White. Says Brummett: "It was sort of an epiphany for him. He decided he'd rather be in office than out."

Humbled, Clinton has since chosen his fights carefully, liberals say overly so. "I don't think the poultry industry is going to gather up its billions of chickens and go to another state" if Arkansas were to pass environmental controls, Brummett says.

Ms. Parker views the governor differently. Clinton "understands how the government here works," she says. "You just can't have a dictatorship." That didn't cool Qualye's reception, though.

And some worry about how the governor's conciliatory style would serve him in the White House.

Trying to please everyone is "Clinton's whole history," Brummett says. "He's not the kind of guy who's going to make the tough decisions."

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