GOP dignitaries' attack on Clinton's turf backfires

September 17, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Staff Writer

PINE BLUFF, Ark. -- Like the gang that couldn't shoot straight, prominent Republicans invaded Arkansas yesterday to attack Bill Clinton's record, but wound up shooting themselves in the foot.

U.S. Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, former White House chief of staff Samuel K. Skinner and presidential environmental adviser Michael Deland had hoped to paint Mr. Clinton as a failed governor. Instead, they raised more questions about the competence of the GOP's campaign than about Mr. Clinton.

One embarrassing gaffe followed another as the GOP trio, shadowed from the start by Clinton aides and supporters, pressed its assault across the state.

The day began poorly in Little Rock. As Ms. Martin set out to criticize Mr. Clinton's economic performance at a press conference, Clinton aides gleefully noted that her own agency was releasing data showing Arkansas had led the nation in non-farm job growth.

Then, at another press conference with local residents in Pine Bluff, an attempt to show that the city had not benefited from Mr. Clinton's policies as governor went awry when one of the people invited to speak turned out to be an enthusiastic Clinton supporter who had nothing but good things to say about the governor.

The Republicans termed their Arkansas trip, which concludes today with assaults on Mr. Clinton's environmental and law enforcement record, the "come-on-down" tour. The title is taken from Mr. Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in July, when he said:

"And so I say to all, those in this campaign season who would criticize Arkansas: Come on down. . . . Sure, you will see us struggling against some of the problems we haven't solved yet. But you'll also see a lot of great people doing amazing things. And you might even learn a thing or two."

The Republicans had good reason to come down. A new CBS-New York Times poll showed that voters nationwide by a more than a 2-to-1 margin have a favorable impression of Mr. Clinton as governor and are therefore more likely to support him.

Though the Bush-Quayle campaign had kept the trip's exact itinerary a secret, even from some reporters, Clinton aides caught on. Led by Betsey Wright, whose job it is to fend off Republican charges, they hounded the GOP standard-bearers all day.

They waved signs endorsing Mr. Clinton and criticizing Mr. Bush, and recruited dozens of supporters to come out and shout down the outnumbered Bush backers.

At the morning news conference outside the Capitol in Little Rock, Ms. Martin challenged Mr. Clinton's assertion that

Arkansas was progressing under his 12 years of leadership, noting statistics showing it still ranked low among states in many categories of economic performance.

As she did, Clinton aides were citing to reporters job growth figures, especially in manufacturing, to counter that charge.

Asked about the new Arkansas job numbers from the Labor Department, Ms. Martin gamely replied that voters must look at Mr. Clinton's "full" tenure as governor to judge. And, with the governor off campaigning, she said, "he hasn't been in the state much and it's finally able to recover."

As Mrs. Martin and other Republicans spoke, Ms. Wright hovered nearby, an avenging angel dressed in black. As soon as they finished, she went up to the microphone, but was quickly shouldered aside by a heavy-set Frank White, a Republican who defeated Mr. Clinton for governor in 1980 but then lost to him two years later.

Ms. Wright got in her licks, however, charging that the Republican criticisms were "casting aspersions on the people of Arkansas."

But the GOP couldn't shake Ms. Wright. When their bus reached Pine Bluff, she was already there with another group of supporters.

As the Republicans walked along a sidewalk in a rundown area they said showed the down side of Mr. Clinton's policies, they were shadowed by a Clinton campaign van and his backers.

Finally, they set up for a press conference outside a boarded-up movie theater. But someone had forgotten to bring a public address system, so much of what was said was lost in the roar of passing traffic and occasional interruptions by Clinton people.

Not that it mattered. The local guests invited by the Republicans to speak, including Lewis Yancy, had lots to say about how hard it was for minorities to get loans from banks, but said nothing -- that could be heard -- about Mr. Clinton.

"I don't think we've had a better governor than Governor Clinton," Mr. Yancy said to reporters after the press conference. He said he intended to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee.

Finally, Ms. Martin suffered the ultimate indignity. The Republican advance staff had not secured the press conference area, permitting a Clinton backer to stand behind her, as TV crews filmed, with a sign reading: "Quit Lying About Arkansas."

At the end of the day, Arkansas Republican Chairman Sheffield Nelson, a bitter foe of Mr. Clinton, declared the effort a success.

"I think it was very successful, in the sense that at last you know everything is not utopia, as Bill Clinton would have you believe."

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