LITTLE ROCK — The Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center, set on a six-acre campus here, is about a 15-minute drive away from the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.
In between are the state capitol and the governor’s mansion, now controlled by Republicans, who also hold all six of the state’s seats in Congress.
In some ways, Clinton never left the state where she served as first lady for 12 years, as she has already etched her name in Arkansas history. In others, she’s an outsider — the Democratic front-runner for president in a state that has moved sharply Republican in recent years.
Clinton returned Saturday evening to try to turn things around. She was the featured speaker at a Democratic fundraising dinner, telling some 2,000 people that “Democrats are in the future business” during a speech in which she emphasized her campaign theme of helping the middle class, slammed her Republican opponents, including Donald Trump, and called on Democrats to enlist candidates to take on Republicans.
The visit highlighted Clinton’s effort to fortify and revitalize state and local Democratic parties as she runs for president, including in areas where victories have been hard to come by in recent elections.
Arkansas is perhaps the best test of how well that strategy will work. Clinton and her husband, Bill, are practically political royalty here, giving them an advantage that President Obama and other Democratic leaders never had. But they face stiff headwinds months after Republicans dominated the midterm elections, despite them campaigning for Democratic candidates here.
“I am well aware that here in Arkansas, last year was a hard one for Democrats,” said Clinton. “But don’t forget voters did come out and pass an increase in the minimum wage,” said Clinton, seeking a silver lining.
Part of Clinton’s plan to help state Democrats around the country is simply showing up and boosting ticket sales to dinners. Her speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in North Little Rock comes after appearances at similar dinners in New Hampshire and Virginia in recent weeks.
Clinton aides say they are trying to build a broad national coalition that extends well beyond the states that vote early in the primary. Last month, the campaign said it had dispatched 51 organizers to build volunteer networks in the 46 non-early states and had held or scheduled 320 organizing meetings there.
Arkansas Democratic Party chairman Vincent Insalaco said the prospect of Clinton being at the top of the ticket in 2016 has made it easier to recruit Democrats to run for state and local offices.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we need to start recruiting good Democratic candidates and then running them at every level,” Clinton said.
Republicans confidently predict that Clinton, should she win the Democratic nomination, would not prevent them from winning Arkansas in the presidential election. And even the most optimistic Democrats acknowledge how difficult it would be to spring an upset.
“It’ll be an uphill battle,” said former governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat.
The last Democrat to carry the state was Bill Clinton in 1996. Obama lost twice by wide margins.
“She cannot revitalize the party in Arkansas because the party has no future at this time,” said Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb. “It’s suffered great losses. If you look at our success over the past three election cycles, their infrastructure is down.”
The Clinton campaign, which is trying to diminish the impression that she is the inevitable Democratic nominee, says it is focused on Arkansas as part of the primary process. The state is slated to be part of a full batch of “Super Tuesday” primaries on March 1.
“Hillary Clinton is committed to strengthening the Arkansas Democratic Party, and helping Democrats be successful up and down the ballot next year and beyond,” said Clinton spokesman Tyrone Gayle.
In her speech, Clinton took aim at Republican Jeb Bush and the crowded field of GOP hopefuls, who she argued would take the country backward by embracing economic policies that don’t benefit middle-class Americans. She saved her most direct criticism for Donald Trump, who stoke more controversy Saturday when he belittled the war service of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“There’s nothing funny about the hate he is spewing at immigrants and their families and now the insults he has directed at a genuine war hero,” said Clinton. She called it “shameful” that it took the rest of the GOP field, which came out sharply against Trump Saturday after weeks of varying levels of criticism, so long to confront him.
Clinton quipped of Trump, who appeared at Republican fundraising dinner in Hot Springs on Friday: “Finally, a candidate whose hair gets more attention than mine.”
The massive electoral shift toward Republicans in Arkansas, once a Democratic stronghold, is part of a broader trend in Southern states in recent years. Clinton’s allies and friends hope her résumé of local accomplishments can help ease some of their suffering at the ballot box and bring more voters into the Democratic fold.
They point to her work on behalf of women, children, families and poor rural residents, citing her co-founding of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“If you look at many of Hillary’s domestic policy initiatives and interests, you can trace them back to her work in Arkansas,” said Skip Rutherford, a longtime Clinton adviser and friend who is the dean of the University of Arkansas’s Clinton School of Public Service.
Insalaco said Clinton left a defining political mark.
“She was a very different first lady,” he said. “I think she helped pave the way for women to run for office in Arkansas, for women to have success in politics in Arkansas.”
Republicans believe that Clinton’s accomplishments in the state will only carry her so far, since she has spent the past two decades outside of Arkansas — representing New York in the Senate from 2001 to 2009 and then serving as U.S. secretary of state for the next four years.
At the Republican fundraising dinner in Hot Springs, the crowd cheered when Trump said Clinton “deserted” Arkansas.
Rutherford sees things differently. But he also sees a challenging landscape for Clinton in 2016.
“The base of support for Hillary Clinton has not shrunk in Arkansas,” Rutherford said. “But the demographics have changed.”