- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - With a former first lady facing a clear path to the Democratic nomination and an ex-governor inching closer toward another bid in the GOP contest, Arkansas has no shortage of big names in the 2016 White House race. But instead of being a key player in an increasingly crowded presidential fight, Arkansas is heading toward an all-too-familiar status as a flyover state in 2016.

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s long-awaited announcement last week that she would make another run for the Democratic presidential nomination ensured Arkansas will at least be a part of the 2016 narrative. And former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s announcement that he’s ending his syndicated radio show is a signal he’s preparing for another White House bid.

It sets up a reprise of 2008, when the two ran unsuccessfully for their parties’ nominations. Despite the two being in the mix and an experiment with moving the state’s presidential primary up that year, most of the other candidates steered clear of Arkansas and instead focused on territories they could win.

Republicans are holding out hope that another attempt at moving the state’s presidential primary up - from May to March - could give Arkansas more clout in the GOP race. Though an effort to have Arkansas join a possible “SEC primary” fizzled during the legislative session, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has left open the possibility that proposal could come back during a special session later this year.

State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said whether Arkansas is a player in the GOP nomination fight depends partly on whether the state moves up its primary. Webb said the party has invited potential and announced GOP hopefuls to speak at the party’s Reagan-Rockefeller fundraiser later this year.

“I feel that if we are in an early primary where there are lots of delegates selected, we would be bigger draw, and would draw more of the potential candidates,” Webb said.

Webb also believes that, with an earlier primary, Arkansas could be even more of a draw to GOP hopefuls because of the party’s victories in last year’s election. Several of the announced and potential White House hopefuls - including Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul - made appearances throughout last year’s campaign to help state GOP candidates.

It’s unclear how Clinton’s candidacy may benefit Democrats, who want to rebound after the GOP completed a sweep of Arkansas’ statewide and federal offices in the November election. There may be little need for her to campaign in Arkansas if she doesn’t face a serious challenge for the nomination, and her campaign will likely want to focus resources on states that appear more competitive for Democrats.

Just like in 2008, Clinton can count on the support of longtime friends who have helped her and former President Bill Clinton dating back to their days in Arkansas. State Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco said he expects her to have a campaign presence in the state, and said having her as a nominee could help the party turn out the vote.

“I just think we are a very independent state and we take our politics very personally,” Insalaco said. “I think Secretary Clinton has thousands of fans and personal friends in Arkansas who will work really hard for her.”

Insalaco is also skeptical of whether moving up the primary earlier is worth the cost of an extra election.

If Arkansas doesn’t play a major role in next year’s race, there are some who expect it to later. A new state law allowing Senate and congressional candidates to run simultaneously for re-election and the presidency was pushed with the intent of benefiting of a potential 2020 White House bid by freshman Republican Sen. Tom Cotton - a race he hasn’t even floated as a possibility.

___

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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