Politics » Politics Feature

In Arkansas, Bill Clinton Goes to Bat for Obama -- Sort Of



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JONESBORO, ARKANSAS -- Bill Clinton, as most close observers know, is left-handed. It seems appropriate, then, that on his weekend barnstorming tour in Arkansas for Barack Obama, the fellow Democrat who defeated his wife Hillary in a bitter and grueling primary season, the former president offered support that was...well, left-handed.

Appearing in Jonesboro on Saturday, as the star attraction of an all-star cast of Arkansas Democrats who were concluding a two-day campaign tour of the state, Clinton was short on encomiums for Obama per se, and, for that matter, did little finger-wagging at the expense of Republican nominee John McCain. Clinton, in fact, indulged himself with a homily about respect for one's opponents and showered some praise on McCain for the onetime P.O.W.'s service to the nation.

What the former president did was (a) predict a victory by Obama; (b) favorably (and briefly) contrast some of Obama's positions on key issues with those of McCain's; and (c) utter a call for Arkansas to join the rest of the nation in a "parade"for change at a time of national crisis. For much of the rest of his time on the stump, Clinton allowed himself some personal recollections about his own former gubernatorial campaigns in northeast Arkansas and touted the region for its bellwether importance, not only in his own former races but in the one at hand.

"You do the math," he said. "If the eleven counties of northeast Arkansas go for Barack Obama and Joe Biden, Barack Obama will carry Arkansas, and we will be part of the building of America's future."

Highly qualified and hedged and indirect as Clinton's endorsement of Obama was, the very fact of his appearance might still have been of major importance in the quest to return Arkansas, dependably Republican in recent presidential elections, to the Democratic column. As U.S. Senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln informed the crowd in her own preliminary remarks, a new poll reflects a drop in McCain's share of the Arkansas vote from 57 percent to 51 percent.

And the crowd of several hundred -- "the largest we've seen so far," noted several of the platform luminaries- certainly had to appreciate the weight of political celebrity up there on the platform , hard by the Craighead County courthouse in downtown Jonesboro. Among the luminaries, besides Lambert and Clinton, were Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, each widely esteemed, each both a former governor and a former senator; Jim Guy Tucker, a former congressman and governor; and current Arkansas governor Mike Beebe.

Five governors, past or present, as Clinton noted. Not too shabby. And all of them together both a reminder of past Democratic glories and a commitment, just as they said, to the inauguration of a new era of Democratic dominance and control of the nation's affairs.

That if it comes, it will be led not by a former Arkansas First Lady but by the current New York senator's colleague from Illinois, Barack Obama of Illinois, is something most of the touring luminaries, all former Hillary Clinton supporters, have made their peace with. Maybe even Bill Clinton has. But his expressions of support in Jonesboro on Saturday were just formal and distanced enough to leave some doubt.

"We have exhausted our alternatives, and we are ready to do the right thing," the former president said in his conclusion. He was footnoting a statement by Winston Churchill about America's penchant for rising to the occasion, even if often quite late, and it was easy enough to believe that Clinton was talking as much about himself as about the nation itself.

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