In a campaign stop befitting a rock star, with strobe lights and music and screaming, the Comeback Kid came home today with one message: Make Arkansas a Comeback State to the roster of blue Democrat states.
"We've got two days here, and we can win here," said former president Bill Clinton, who has been campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry since last Monday. "It's not too late; we can move this thing," the former governor told a crowd of about 6,200 people gathered in the city's convention center for a get-out-the-vote rally.
Clinton, who is noticeably thinner almost two months into his recuperation from quadruple heart bypass surgery, urged the throng to vote. He implored them to persuade those who "are reluctant to change leaders while we're involved in this mess in Iraq" to cast a ballot for Kerry.
"He'll increase the size of the Army . . . double the size of the special forces . . . contain weapons of mass destruction . . . and make smarter, better investments in homeland security," Clinton said.
Advisers to President Bush, who won Arkansas's six electoral votes four years ago, have assumed the state is still in the red Republican ranks. But recent polls here have shown the presidential race tightening or in a dead heat, and a local Kerry spokesman said Sunday that "the campaign of John Kerry is poised for victory in Arkansas."
With 13 field offices, 40 paid staff members and "thousands and thousands" of volunteers working to get out the Kerry vote in the last 48 hours of the campaign, John Emekli said all the campaign needed was an appearance by Clinton. "He's still the most galvanizing force we know in Arkansas," he said.
Indeed, Clinton's appearance drew not only the party faithful -- many of them wearing buttons for Kerry or Democratic congressional candidates -- but also Arkansans who still love the former president despite the personal foibles that sidelined him during the 2000 presidential campaign when Al Gore asked his former running mate to stay off the campaign trail.
"He's my ex-governor and he's my ex-president and I love to hear him speak," said Barbara Casey of Little Rock, who brought her 12-year-old son and stood in line for an hour to get into the rally. "He's inspirational and he's a great motivational speaker."
As for his personal scandals, Casey said: "I don't care what he's done. He's a people person and he loves people. He's a good person and he's intelligent and he hasn't done anything anybody else hasn't done. He was just surrounded by people who hated him."
A New York resident since 2001, Clinton ended a week of campaigning for Kerry in his home state, where he ridiculed Bush -- "I was laughing my head off during the debates," Clinton said -- and chided Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee for calling him "absentee for a dozen years" from Arkansas.
"Eight of those years I was in the White House," Clinton said.
This year, he added, the state lost 3,000 jobs under Bush while during his two terms as president, Arkansas gained 113,000 jobs. "You were better off without me in the state," he said as the crowd laughed and cheered.
Clinton invoked Huckabee's name a second time, saying that despite the governor's criticism of him, "as a private citizen I created more jobs in Arkansas than President Bush did." Clinton was referring to the workers employed in building his presidential library, which will open here next month.
Huckabee had disparaged Clinton's campaign effort even before the ex-governor made it. Clinton is "a great campaigner," Huckabee said on "Fox News Sunday." "But selling John Kerry in a conservative state like Arkansas is tougher than selling Red Sox souvenirs in Manhattan."
Huckabee added that if the difference in the percentage of popular support for Bush and Kerry widens after Clinton's visit, "then it may show that Bill Clinton not only didn't help, but he may have actually increased George Bush's spread."
Clinton warned the crowd that Republicans were trying to use socially divisive issues such as guns and same-sex marriage to scare voters and turn them against Kerry.
"I'm going to talk about something no other Democrat can talk about but, heck, I'm not running for anything," Clinton said. "Let's be frank about it. Out in the country, they are wearing us out with guns and gay marriage."
He said Republicans and the National Rifle Association are trying to mislead the public about Kerry's positions on these issues. He said Kerry supports prohibiting sales of "cop killer" bullets to the public and favors the Brady Law, which requires background checks and a waiting period for handgun purchases. But he also described Kerry as an outdoorsman and hunter who supported the assault-weapons ban, which expired earlier this year "and protected over 600 weapons that can be used for hunting," Clinton said.
"It is a bull issue; it is a total false issue," he said.
As for same-sex marriage, Clinton said Kerry believes that gays should participate in civil unions and that the definition of marriage should be left to individual states.
"This election is not about guns and gay marriage," Clinton said. "It's about the economy, health care and the future of our children."