THE WASHINGTON TIMES
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansans warmly welcomed back Hillary Rodham Clinton this weekend in the Democrat's first visit to her old stomping ground since becoming a White House candidate.
Voters here view her — the state's first lady when her husband, Bill, was governor — as a native daughter and say they think electing her president would effectively give her husband another term.
Mrs. Clinton, now a U.S. senator from New York, attracted record crowds in a fundraiser for Arkansas Democrats and got a sustained ovation for her standard stump line promising to give universal health care another try.
"Arkansas runs deep in me today and always will," Mrs. Clinton said, beaming at the close of her speech as speakers blared the pop tune "Who Says You Can't Go Home?"
Every Democratic supporter on the Clinton Arkansas endorsement list said they can convince voters she is electable.
"She will be the next president of the United States," Rep. Vic Snyder said, introducing her, adding: "Arkansas is in you, and we know it and we see it every day."
Newly elected Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe lavished praise on Mrs. Clinton as someone with "a brilliance that few people can match and a heart that goes with it."
"Senator, on behalf of almost 3 million Arkansans, welcome home," he said.
The 30-minute speech to 4,000 people at the Alltel Arena on Saturday night was an opening salvo in Mrs. Clinton's efforts to win over Southern voters. Arkansas, where all the state's top elected officials are Democrats, is the bluest spot in the conservative South, and backed Mr. Clinton in both his presidential victories.
Campaign staffers say Mrs. Clinton has no intention of conceding this turf to former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a Democratic primary rival who proclaimed recently he is the only candidate who can win in the South come November 2008.
Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, also vying for the primary nod, has made several trips to the South, and holds a slim lead in some polls from the key early state of South Carolina.
Mrs. Clinton's operatives tout polls showing her strength in Florida and Texas. She also raised nearly $300,000 in Oklahoma earlier this month.
The Feb. 5 primary in Arkansas might get drowned out as voters in California and New York turn out for "Super Duper Tuesday," though a win here would give Mrs. Clinton's Southern credentials a boost.
But plenty have their doubts.
"She is a Yankee, will make the general election nonexistent in the South and will only handcuff Bill from continuing to build on what should become a fantastic post-presidential legacy," wrote "Orval," who runs the Greasy Creek blog in Arkansas. "If you need a poll, the next time you are getting your car fixed, tell your mechanic you are voting for Hillary [and] see what they say."
Mrs. Clinton stressed her roots Saturday night.
"You can imagine the rush of feelings and emotions and images that have just filled my mind ever since I arrived late this afternoon," she told the cheering crowd, outlining her husband's many campaigns in the state since the 1970s and when their daughter, Chelsea, was born there.
"I am so grateful for the friendships that have really been just part of my heart for all of these years," she said.
Staffers said she was excitedly pointing out her favorite spots along the drive, and made a quick stop at the Clinton Museum Store during the brief visit. A stroll through downtown Little Rock — where the Clinton Presidential Library looms large over the river — revealed voters grateful for the former first family.
"This used to be nothing," said Linda Bryant, an assembly-line worker from Little Rock, gesturing at new shops and hotels along President Clinton Avenue.
Kevin Dedner, who works in government relations, said it was simple — she and Mr. Clinton know Arkansas.
"She's traveled our dirt roads. It's a no-brainer for us," said Mr. Dedner, 30. "We all know marriage is a team, and I would imagine Bill probably got a lot of counsel from Hillary. It would be the same for her, and that's a good thing."
"We'd get a two-way deal," echoed Wanda Hensley of Heber Springs.
"It would be like having two presidents," Judy Gamet agreed.
The visit received little press attention and generated a mild "Sen. Clinton in Arkansas talks of war, health care" headline in the morning's paper.
The hype for the event mostly came from Republicans, who welcomed her with a "care package" that pointed out she voted against the Bush tax cuts, included a Razorbacks cap and made fun of her sometimes-Southern twang.
"We know that the more time you spend faking your Southern roots and touting your liberal New York values here in Arkansas, the more likely voters in this state will elect another Republican president next year," the Republicans wrote to Mrs. Clinton.
One paper said she "pops in for fundraiser" and a lone protester with a "Hillary — dump that evil trash" sign drew dirty looks from Democrats heading to the event.
Party officials did not release the total added to their coffers in Saturday's $100-per-plate fundraiser, which was expected to raise a record of more than $200,000. It sold out so fast organizers added $25 bleacher seats that packed the arena, and Mrs. Clinton made sure some of her old pals got seats for free. Party officials pointed out they invited all the 2008 Democrats, and Mrs. Clinton, a native Chicagoan who lived here 12 years, was the only candidate to accept.
The locals lauded the portion of Mrs. Clinton's speech that talked about training auto mechanics for jobs and creating new jobs for people who install solar panels or grow soybeans for alternative energy.
"These are jobs that can't be sent overseas. These would be good jobs right here in Arkansas and across America, and that's how we need to be thinking about this opportunity," she said, on a day where the big news was that the state lost a bid for an automobile-assembly plant in the latest in a string of economic-development setbacks.
Clinton supporters at the dinner envisioned an electoral map with Mrs. Clinton winning Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee — picking up enough states to win the presidency. They said her years in Arkansas and as first lady make her better prepared than any other candidate.
"Hillary is head and shoulders better than the rest," said Lee Lee Doyle, a doctor and retired dean of the University of Arkansas medical school. "She's learned a lot from the school of experience and hard knocks."