LITTLE ROCK, ARK. -- As if the spring floods were not enough, nice old conservative Arkansas finds itself facing a Tuesday gubernatorial primary between a man who contributed $1,000 to Edward M. Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign and one who voted for Jesse L. Jackson at the 1988 Democratic convention. And those are the Republicans.
In the Democratic primary, boyish-looking Gov. Bill Clinton, a perennially rising star on the national scene, finds himself without the support of labor or teachers as he faces an underdog challenger who says that after 10 years of trying to boost the state from the bottom of the pile, Clinton should give someone else a chance.
In short, all the traditional rules of Arkansas politics have been knocked into a cocked hat this spring. This election has a Kurt Vonnegut script and a "Saturday Night Live" director.
The radio call-in shows last weekend were dominated by public controversy over the propriety of Clinton's outspoken attorney wife, Hillary, breaking up a state Capitol news conference by his challenger, Tom McRae. She interrupted his criticisms of the governor by reading back to McRae his past words of praise for Clinton. Many callers said she was out of line; others argued she was well-justified by McRae's use of a life-size cartoon of a paunchy, near-naked Clinton to illustrate his claim that the "governor-for-life" has no clothes.
But that is sissy stuff compared to the personal warfare between the two newly minted Republicans who are vying to face the Democratic winner in November. Businessman Sheffield Nelson and Rep. Tommy F. Robinson (R-Ark.) are challenging each other's ethics, honesty and mental balance -- as well as the motives of their big-money backers -- in a fashion that may leave permanent scars on a Republican Party that is still trying to get a foothold in the state.
The ramifications run all the way up to the White House, where President Bush embraced former Democrat Robinson at a nationally televised news conference, welcoming his 1989 switch of party affiliation. Now Bush is being warned to keep his distance from his protege's problems.
Adding to the fun is the fact that all the protagonists have a history of close personal relationships that make the politicking look as double-dealing as an episode of "Dallas."
McRae worked closely with the Clinton administration during the 14 years he headed the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. Robinson was a junior official in the first Clinton administration and Nelson was a more recent Clinton appointee as head of the Industrial Development Commission. Each now finds it easy to fault Clinton's performance.
But the real unraveling involves Robinson, Nelson and three of Arkansas' best-known millionaires -- banking, finance and public utility tycoons Witt and Jack Stephens, and oilman Jerry Jones, who now owns the Dallas Cowboys.
Nelson, raised in poverty, went to work for the Stephens interests as a youth and became president of Arkla, their gas distribution company. In the early 1980s, he signed a deal with Arkoma, a gas drilling and production firm owned by Jones and a partner. Arkoma acquired gas leases from Arkla, agreed to share development costs, and in turn was guaranteed a high price from Arkla for the product. In later years, as natural gas prices plunged, Arkla was losing so much money on the deal that it was forced to buy its way out of the agreement at a price that made Jones millions.
Jones had grown up with Robinson as his best friend, both from impoverished backgrounds. As Jones began making money and Robinson moved into politics, Jones provided the financial cushion for his friend's activities, advancing him money for medical emergencies and the purchase of a farm. When the chance came, Robinson hired Jones's 23-year-old daughter for a $60,000-a-year staff job in his congressional office.
Then last year, Robinson and Nelson made separate but nearly simultaneous decisions to switch parties and run for governor as Republicans. Robinson's shift was hailed by Bush and Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater, who had known the tough-talking, three-term congressman as a frequent ally of the Reagan administration.
But back home in Arkansas, it was the polished, wealthy, well-connected businessman Nelson who appealed to establishment Republicans more than populist Robinson, who as a county sheriff once handcuffed prisoners to a fence to dramatize overcrowding in the jails and as a 1988 Democratic convention delegate voted for Jackson to put a thumb in the eye of Clinton for nominating Michael S. Dukakis.
Compared to Robinson's publicity-drawing personal, financial and political escapades, the fact that Nelson had sent Kennedy a $1,000 check when he was challenging Jimmy Carter in 1980 seemed almost forgivable to some old-guard Republicans, desperate for a credible candidate against Clinton.
That was not the Stephenses' view, however. Angry with Nelson over the Arkla deal, they put their money and political influence strongly behind Robinson. Seeking an issue on which to beat Nelson, Robinson attacked the Arkla-Arkoma deal, thereby ending his lifelong friendship with oilman Jones and, incidentally, terminating Jones's daughter's job on Capitol Hill.
That set the stage for what is probably the most personally vituperative campaign Arkansas Republicans ever have endured.
"The Stephenses are trying to buy a party, a state and a seat in Congress all in one election," Nelson said in an interview, noting that a Stephens nephew, former representative Ray Thornton (D), is running for the House seat Robinson is vacating. "They own Tommy Robinson lock, stock and barrel, and I'm determined they won't get control of the state through him. I've seen them up close, and they are mean, they're vicious, and they step on people."
In reply, Robinson said that Nelson "is obsessed with the Stephens family. He sees them behind every tree. I studied psychology in college and I watch his eye movement whenever the Stephens name is mentioned. It's frightening. It's paranoia."
Polls show the race a tossup. Nelson has most newspaper endorsements, but Robinson has the National Rifle Association's support. The uncertainty of the turnout and crossover vote makes predictions risky.
The notion of Clinton's vulnerability may still prove to be sound, however. Despite their differences, all his challengers, Republican and Democratic, are reminding voters that after 10 years of Clinton's leadership, Arkansas teachers are still the lowest-paid in the nation and schools rank low on many ratings. They charge that Clinton has lost his clout with the legislature and neglects the state because of his national ambitions.
Many longtime Clinton allies concede that time has taken a toll on him. Clinton was only 32 when he won his first term in 1978, and the Georgetown-Yale Law-Rhodes Scholar newcomer quickly gained national publicity. Maybe too quickly, because he was upset for reelection in 1980 by an underdog Republican. Clinton regained his job in 1982 and this winter decided -- over the objections of some close advisers -- to try to extend his tenure to 12 years.
At the national level, Clinton is known as a leading voice for school reform, Bush's Democratic partner at the national "education summit," a former chairman of the National Governors Association, the new head of the Democratic Leadership Council, almost a candidate for the 1988 presidential nomination and on everyone's list of future White House possibilities.
But at home, Clinton has had a rocky time. The legislature repeatedly has refused to pass his school-finance program because it involved higher taxes. Teachers unions, angry at his requiring competency testing of their members, withheld their endorsement in the primary. In a state desperate for jobs, the Clinton administration approved a big loan to a company in the middle of a labor dispute -- angering the unions enough that the governor lost their endorsement.
As Clinton exercised his charm on voters at the Dermott Crawfish Festival last weekend, disdaining the deep-fried funnel cakes in favor of homemade frozen yogurt, he was stopped several times by local teachers, complaining about poor pay. "Give me one more session" of the legislature, Clinton asked. "You vote for me, that will send them a message."
McRae, a top aide to Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) when Bumpers was governor, has shown little flair on the stump, and polls show him running more than 30 points behind Clinton. Still, Clinton is concerned enough to have approved Hillary Clinton's controversial raid on the McRae news conference.
"You stay in this job as long as I have, in a decade as tough as the Eighties, and you're bound to have done something to disappoint or offend everybody," Clinton said. "If ideas and policies disappear, and the whole election turns on whether 10 years is enough for someone to be governor, I lose."