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Arkansas '08: In play 

Arkansas has all of the elements in place for an exciting year of presidential politics.

For starters, there is the state’s new early primary date, moved up from the middle of May to the beginning of February as the result of a law passed by the state legislature in 2005. Arkansas Democrats and Republicans will cast their presidential primary ballots on Feb. 5, 2008, after Iowa, Nevada (only for Democrats), New Hampshire and South Carolina.

And then there are three potential candidates with Arkansas connections: Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee and Wesley Clark.

Clinton announced the formation of her exploratory committee last week, and there are already signs that she is taking Arkansas seriously. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Clinton “thinks she can win” Arkansas.

Furthermore, an old friend of Clinton’s told me that her campaign advisors hurriedly organized a conference call before last week’s announcement to alert close friends and supporters in Arkansas “that something was forthcoming.”

The all-female group consisted of familiar Clinton confidants like Kaki Hockersmith, Patty Criner and Betty Lowe.

“The people here who have known her for so long will be the best surrogates,” Clinton’s friend told me. “They knew her when she worked on issues affecting women and children, and they know she’s been involved her whole career.”

Clinton may be paying special attention to Arkansas because it offers the best opportunity for her to win an early Southern primary. South Carolina, for instance, is probably out of reach because John Edwards (who is from North Carolina) won the state in 2004, and Barack Obama will appeal to black voters who comprise almost half of the state’s Democratic voters (and who gave Obama a 91 percent approval rating in a recent poll).

Clinton also could be trying to stop Clark in his tracks. The retired Army general says he is still considering another run for the White House, but in 2004 his campaign organization — headquartered in Little Rock — received considerable support from longtime Clinton friends inside and outside Arkansas.

Now those people are in an awkward position. Forced to choose, most will likely return to the Clinton fold, based on first loyalties and strategic calculation.

Making that kind of calculation, however, is difficult even for those with an intimate familiarity with Arkansas politics. Obviously the Clinton name still elicits sympathy and respect among Democrats here, but it’s been 11 years since it appeared on a statewide ballot, and 17 years since a Clinton ran for an Arkansas office. Can the women assembled for Clinton’s courtesy call last week wield power in a primary here?

Incredibly, there is reason to ask similar questions about Huckabee’s ability to carry his own state in a primary. Although he only departed the Governor’s Mansion less than three weeks ago, Huckabee is not universally beloved among state Republicans, even as he lays the groundwork for a national candidacy.

At a Little Rock gala last month, Huckabee raised only $500,000 from local supporters for his potential presidential bid. (Bill Clinton famously raked in $1 million from Arkansas donors at a comparable event — in 1991, when that was serious money.) Also, as the Arkansas Times recently reported, Huckabee had to cancel a fundraiser to endow his new position at Ouachita Baptist University due to “lack of sufficient interest.”

Furthermore, Huckabee has faced off numerous times against the more conservative wing of the Arkansas GOP, which dominates the primary voter base. Those voters don’t like Huckabee’s record on taxes and immigration, and they fought many of his preferred candidates for state office and for leadership positions in the state party organization.

Plus, don’t forget that Huckabee couldn’t even marshal a group of Arkansas Republicans to go to Memphis last March to vote for him in the Southern Republican Leadership Conference presidential straw poll. He finished sixth.

So it’s not inconceivable that a social conservative like Sam Brownback could sweep into Arkansas to make a stand in the Republican primary.

And considering Obama’s enthusiastic reception at a Little Rock rally in October, as well as the impressive list of Arkansas donors to Edwards’ presidential campaign in 2003-04, there is reason to believe they could persuasively appeal to the state’s Democrats.

In fact, when it comes to the Arkansas presidential primaries, the biggest mistake candidates and pundits could make would be to overestimate the depth of support for Clinton and Huckabee here. If challenged, both of them will have to work harder than expected to build a winning organization, and both risk a potentially fatal embarrassment if they underperform here.

In more ways than one, Arkansas could be where Clinton’s and Huckabee’s White House hopes are either launched or squandered.

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