As the presidential candidates crisscrossed the same territory this week trading barbs, so did their understudies just skirt each other in this battleground state -- but with less fanfare.
Demonstrating how important Bill Clinton's state has become in the 2004 election, John Edwards brought his "hope is on the way" message to 1,500 supporters in Arkansas on Wednesday, just 24 hours after Vice President Cheney made his pitch to smaller, targeted crowds. Both sides agree the race in this historically Democratic state is a dead heat.
"This state is winnable for John Kerry and it's winnable for George Bush," said Sen. Mark Pryor (D). "But just because George Bush won it before doesn't mean he's going to carry it again."
Pryor and other Democrats say the race will turn on "bread and butter" issues of the economy and security, as well as voter turnout, particularly among African Americans and young voters, which they believe Edwards can draw.
Edwards brought his populist stump speech here to the banks of the Arkansas River on a scorching overcast day, as rock music blared and his young children ran around the stage. He emphasized traditional Democratic issues of helping the working class and civil rights, but in a visit to a local printing company he also articulated more centrist themes of helping business. "We understand that small businesses are the backbone of the economy," Edwards said, pledging incentives to help businesses grow.
The GOP has tried to portray the Democratic ticket as too liberal for the values of Arkansas, but Democrats believe Edwards's small-town upbringing and bootstraps story and Kerry's hunting and fishing talk will close cultural gaps. The election four years ago was the first time Clinton -- who was elected governor five times here -- was not on the ballot statewide or running for president in nearly 20 years. Some Democrats believe Vice President Al Gore lost here in 2000 because he took the state for granted.
Bush traveled to the state often. "Arkansas is like Louisiana in that you can't judge it by the Democrat voter [registration], and the fact that Democrats get elected on the state level and in Congress. These are socially and fiscally conservative states," said Bush-Cheney '04 spokesman Reed Dickens.
Bush has visited the state three times this year, as has Cheney. Kerry has been here once; Wednesday was Edwards's first trip as the vice presidential nominee. Cheney's two-stop visit was designed to energize the GOP base. He drew about 500 supporters each in Hot Springs and Fort Smith.
Democrats criticized Cheney for holding events that were essentially by invitation only. The vice president defended the administration's war on terror, and his audience cheered when he criticized federal judges for legislating from the bench.
"The vast majority of Americans believe this is one nation under God, and we believe we ought to be able to say that when we pledge allegiance to the flag," Cheney said.
Edwards ended Wednesday with a rally in Memphis and a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum there, before heading to Missouri, where he is to join Kerry on Thursday in St. Louis.