U.S. Sen. John Kerry came to Arkansas last week determined to portray himself as a strong, common-sense leader who hunts with a gun, follows the Razorbacks, and is not afraid to invoke the name of Bill Clinton.
And while he claimed not to know why Al Gore lost Arkansas in the 2000 presidential race ("Well I don't have any idea, I'm not a political pundit," is how he answered the question posed by the Times), Kerry's first visit to the state as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president seemed designed to counter the elitist, liberal Yankee image that many believe torpedoed Gore's bid for the Natural State's six electoral votes.
Clearly Kerry and his advisors huddled with some Arkansas political veterans in advance and decided to meet the issue head-on.
"He never saw a Friday night football game. He never saw a Razorback game," Gen. Wesley Clark said during his introduction of Kerry at a welcome rally. "We are going to fix that."
Kerry himself mentioned the Razorbacks several times during his public appearances in Little Rock, perhaps believing not only that the University of Arkansas mascot is the one uncontroversial and unifying symbol in the state, but also that professing a passion for sports would make him seem like an average, likable guy.
That kind of image is important to cultivate in light of Gore's 2000 experience, says Jay Barth, chair of the Politics Department at Hendrix College in Conway.
"Gore's problem was totally a cultural problem," Barth said. "He was stiff, out of step, not from here, not one of us. It is very much a gut reaction that many of those voters have - is this person one of us? Gore never got there."
In addition to the image problem, two policy areas proved particularly problematic for Gore in Arkansas: guns and agriculture. The Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign is trying to use the same issues against Kerry. Last week it distributed a press release titled "John Kerry is wrong for Arkansas," citing his 'F' rating from the National Rifle Association and his 1996 Senate vote to eliminate the Agriculture Department.
Kerry had this to say about the NRA rating in an interview with the Times. "That's the phoniest, silliest, dumbest argument I've ever heard in my life. I'm a gun owner and I'm a hunter. I've been a hunter since I was 12 years old. … When I'm president no one is going to try to take away guns. I support the Second Amendment and will support the Second Amendment throughout my presidency."
Kerry explained his vote on the Agriculture Department as a reform attempt, because he thought federal subsidies were benefiting large farming operations at the expense of small family farmers.
Kerry also appeared to be aware of the need to portray himself as a strong leader, one of Bush's perceived strengths. Banners at his welcome rally read, "A Stronger Arkansas = A Stronger America," and the backdrop at a subsequent appearance said, "Affordable Health Care Means A Stronger America."
Barth thinks the Kerry campaign designed the health care event to appeal to an Arkansas audience.
"There are a lot of health care issues he could have talked about," Barth noted. "Talking about veterans was a way to attach himself to components of the Clinton administration, especially [former Secretary of Veterans Affairs] Herschel Gober, who is someone the veterans community cares about and admires."
Many Democrats still believe that Gore would have won Arkansas, and thus the presidency, if he had allowed Clinton to campaign vigorously for him in the state. This message has not been lost on Kerry, who thanked Arkansas for Bill Clinton, cited the positive economic achievements of the Clinton Administration, and even stopped by Doe's Eat Place, the Little Rock restaurant made famous because Clinton frequented it.
Of course, Clinton still inspires strong feelings among detractors, too, and Kerry may not have fully decided how to employ the state's most famous political export. But on a trip intended to mobilize the Democratic Party base (much as the Bush administration has focused on Republican Northwest Arkansas in its forays here), the invocation of Clinton was a safe bet.
The more difficult task lies ahead, when Kerry turns his attention to critical swing voters. About 10 to 15 percent of those likely to cast ballots, they are generally white, middle class and suburban and rural dwellers. They may be open to voting for a Democrat on economic issues, but cultural issues are often a major stumbling block.
Kerry seems to have absorbed the lesson of Gore's performance in Arkansas by trying to convince voters here that he understands where they are coming from by eating at Doe's and calling the Hogs. But Barth thinks Kerry might not want to get carried away with the "Ich bin ein Arkansan" routine.
"Kerry has to watch it," Barth warned. "If he gets over-managed he may do some things that come across as fake or forced. He is not a natural politician in the Arkansas sense. Arkansans can smell a phony. Better to be himself and not be in-step culturally than to force who he is."
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