Arkansas Democrats lay hopes on Hillary Clinton

The love affair between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Arkansans is on again.

Clinton returns to the state where she was first lady for 12 years on Saturday to headline a state Democratic Party fundraiser, this time as her party's front-runner for the White House and with a rock star-like celebrity status.

One benchmark of that status: A local sign store says Clinton paraphernalia is outselling that of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee 20-to-1 even though Huckabee is a Republican presidential candidate who recently retired as governor after serving for 10 years.

Arkansans also buy 10 Clinton items for every one with fellow Democrat Barack Obama's name.

"I would say every day we have somebody coming in and buying something with her name on it," said Randi Evans, president of AdCraft of Arkansas.

And which name might that be? In 1980, Clinton insisted that she be called by her maiden name, Rodham. That did not sit well with Arkansans and may have cost her husband votes as he lost his first re-election bid as Arkansas governor.

By the time Bill Clinton announced a comeback bid for governor in 1982, she was going by "Hillary Rodham Clinton" - a name that stuck through eight years in the White House and two elections to the U.S. Senate from New York. Now that she is running for the Oval Office herself, she has dropped the "Rodham" on her campaign Web site in favor of Sen. Hillary Clinton or just plain "Hillary."

While husband Bill is a native Arkansan, born in Hope and raised in Hot Springs, Sen. Clinton is an Illinois native.

"Arkansas helped raise Hillary Clinton," said Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder, one of two congressmen from the state who have publicly endorsed her campaign. Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Mike Ross back her, too.

"She gave 12 years of her life as first lady of our state," Ross said. "I'm surprised that people would even ask who we're supporting."

Between 2,000 and 4,000 may attend the state party's Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner, expected to collect $200,000 for the state party.

Fundraising figures show that Sen. Clinton has raised $87,900 (65,396 EUR) in the state, more than any of the other Democrats candidates, but less than the $258,705 (192,474 EUR) raised by Huckabee.

Sen. Clinton relies here on the same set of Democrats who helped her husband's campaigns, including former White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty and former state treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher, whom Huckabee easily defeated in the 2002 governor's race.

Since leaving the White House in 2001, Mrs. Clinton has made only a few public appearances in Arkansas - a 2003 book-signing, the 2004 opening of the Clinton Library and a fundraiser for a Democratic women's group last year.

Nevertheless, her supporters say they may travel the country for her, similar to the "Arkansas Travelers" team in her husband's 1992 campaign.

"It's not every day you have a friend who's running for president," said Sheila Bronfman, who led the Arkansas Travelers for former President Clinton and supports Sen. Clinton's campaign. "I would think there would be a lot of us here who could share the personal aspects of her story, rather than the policy part of her."

Several Arkansans said Sen. Clinton's mettle has been tested and she has shown herself to be strong and capable.

"They went through all of that personal stuff and she really held herself together," said Orville Edwards, a 74-year-old hardware store manager in Little Rock. "Can you imagine anyone else handling themselves in the same way?"

But Jan Crow, a 66-year-old office manager at the American Legion in downtown Little Rock, said she voted for Bill Clinton as governor once, but she won't ever vote for his wife.

"For a long time, she didn't seem to be trying to be an Arkansan," said Crow, a Republican. "I think she considered herself an outsider and acted like one until it was convenient for her to be an Arkansan."