Clinton uses '90 Ark. race as a script

October 06, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- If Bill Clinton seems unfazed by attacks on his record, perhaps it's because he faced them two years ago in a gubernatorial race that foreshadowed the presidential campaign.

Running on a message of governmental activism and change, Mr. Clinton overcame Republican charges that he was a "tax-and-spend liberal" who "flip-flopped" on issues while Arkansas stagnated with the nation's third-lowest per capita income.

Sound familiar? Mr. Clinton is pursuing virtually the same themes this year, while the Bush campaign is recycling the accusations made by his unsuccessful Republican challenger, Sheffield Nelson.

Even Hillary Clinton was briefly an issue in 1990, just as she is a Republican target this year.

The dress-rehearsal quality of the 1990 race is no coincidence: Long hoping to run for president, Mr. Clinton used that election as a springboard, employing a Washington media firm that is working for him this year. The Bush campaign, in turn, is mining Mr. Nelson's campaign for material that will discredit the governor.

While it remains to be seen whether this election will end the way the gubernatorial race did, Mr. Clinton seems to have learned more from the 1990 campaign than the GOP learned about him.

The lesson Republicans are still absorbing is that Mr. Clinton isn't another Michael S. Dukakis, the passive 1988 Democratic nominee. In 1990, Mr. Clinton honed already sharp political skills, perfecting his ability to counterpunch and to use negative advertising to diminish an opponent.

Betsey Wright, who was Mr. Clinton's chief of staff and is deputy chairwoman of his presidential campaign, says he began "the pattern of rapid response" in the 1982 campaign after losing a 1980 race in which he didn't adequately answer a Republican opponent's charges.

Without question, 1990 ended with Mr. Clinton better prepared to fight attacks on his record. Mr. Bush has yet to come up with a charge about his record that Mr. Clinton didn't deal with in 1990.

The Arkansas race also helped Mr. Clinton polish the future-oriented message he is using against Mr. Bush.

Declaring that education was the key to competing in the emerging global economy, Mr. Clinton promised to expand vocational training and apprenticeships for high school graduates and increase funding for college-bound students -- all significant features of his 1992 platform.

He also advocated extending health insurance to families who couldn't afford it, another pledge he has carried over to his

national campaign. And he backed the idea of selling bonds to build and improve highways, foretelling the "infrastructure" investment that is the focus of his presidential campaign's proposals for economic growth.

Although he was a Democratic incumbent in a heavily Democratic state in 1990, Mr. Clinton was not invulnerable. Five Democrats challenged him in his party's primary, raising the issue of whether he had been in office too long, and together they netted 45 percent of the vote.

Comparing the 1990 and 1992 campaigns, Emory University political scientist Merle Black says that Mr. Clinton is "trying to apply to presidential politics what works for Southern Democrats in state politics, the mix of liberal and conservative themes."

In Mr. Clinton's case, the mix includes support of the death penalty and welfare reform, which conservatives like, and the liberal-pleasing idea of raising taxes on the wealthy.

Supporters of Mr. Clinton say the positions he took in 1990 were not new ideas he was test- marketing for a possible White House bid. "Bill Clinton has been thinking about these things since he first ran for governor," says Diane Blair, a political scientist and longtime Clinton backer who is working for his campaign.

Moving ideologically closer to the political center than recent Democratic presidential candidates, Mr. Clinton also developed a knack for finessing issues. He demonstrated this skill -- for which critics call him "Slick Willie" -- in 1990 and again in 1992, when caught between competing environmental and timber interests.

Confronted with a seemingly yes-or-no decision on whether to support clear cutting in Arkansas' Ouachita National Forest, Mr. Clinton instead invited both sides to a post-election summit where he said he was sure something equitable could be worked out. Mr. Nelson accused him of having "flip-flopped" on the issue.

Campaigning this year in the Northwest, Mr. Clinton proposed exactly the same step, a meeting involving timber and environmental groups.

Mr. Clinton's ability to dance around danger is evident as well in ++ his handling of the tax issue raised by both Mr. Nelson and Mr. Bush.

Mr. Nelson, a millionaire businessman who began the election a long shot, charged repeatedly that Mr. Clinton would raise taxes. He dug up statistics purporting to show the governor had raised fees and taxes more than 120 times, a hotly disputed allegation the Bush campaign has picked up.

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