- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

CONWAY, Ark. (AP) - It’s the question Democrats in Arkansas have struggled with over the past two election cycles and are trying to answer as they close in on November: How do you counter the anti-Obama sentiment that’s boosted Republicans’ ranks and put them on the verge of taking over the state’s top offices?

The answer? Bring in a familiar weapon - the state’s most well-known political son.

The series of rallies former President Bill Clinton headlined last week as he tried to help Democrats in his home state avoid a Republican sweep in the midterms wasn’t just about latching on the coattails of the popular ex-governor and Hope native. Instead, they needed the man President Barack Obama once dubbed the “secretary of explaining stuff” to reframe the midterm election.

Urging Arkansans to “vote your heart,” Clinton derided the anti-Obama messaging that Republicans have successfully used in his home state in recent years.

“They want you to make this a protest vote,” Clinton said as he stood with Democratic U.S. Sen Mark Pryor, gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross and 2nd Congressional District nominee Pat Hays. “All three of these races, they’re saying ‘you may like these guys, but hey, you know what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to vote against the president. After all, it’s your last shot.’”

Clinton’s visit came as Republicans in Arkansas and other key states seized on the president’s recent remarks that though he’s not on the ballot, his policies are. The former president’s speech appeared intended to push back against that line of attack.

“They’re really running against the president, aren’t they?” Clinton said. “They see these polls. The president’s unpopular in Arkansas and yeah, the economy’s coming back but nobody believes it yet because you don’t feel it.”

The challenge for Clinton is shifting the conversation in a state that looks vastly different from when he served as governor or when he was president. Arkansas was once seen as a Democratic holdout in the South, but Republicans have made historic gains by running against Obama and his policies.

The GOP now controls the state Legislature and all but one spot- Pryor’s - in the congressional delegation. They hope to complete that sweep next month, with Republican Congressman Tom Cotton trying to unseat Pryor in a race that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate next year.

Republicans have been eager to note that Clinton’s coattails weren’t enough to help his party in Arkansas four years ago, when Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost her bid for re-election.

Clinton, however, used his visit to link the Democrats’ top candidates to outgoing Gov. Mike Beebe. The two-term Democratic governor has remained immensely popular in Arkansas, despite the state’s rightward shift.

“If you like Mike Beebe’s style of leadership, you’ve got to vote for Mike Ross and you’ve got to vote for Mark Pryor because they’ll do it,” Clinton said.

Beebe is quick to point out that he still carried all 75 counties in the 2010 election, despite major Republican gains elsewhere on the ballot. He says a combination of known quantities on the ballot next month and Clinton’s ability to mobilize Democratic voters could prevent another GOP wave.

“If they know you, they’ll vote for you regardless of the flavor of the month. If they don’t, they opt for the flavor of the month,” Beebe said after Clinton’s speech. “What can Clinton do? He can energize some of these people to offset whatever that flavor of the month happens to be.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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