Native Son Clinton Betwixt Little Rock And a Hard Place

President slipping in South, vital to '96 win

JOHN HERZOG voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, but don't expect any razorback roars from him for the state's most famous favorite son now.

''It's a popular thing to dislike Clinton here,'' says the computer professional.

Joe Andrews, a security guard, is even more blunt. ''He's a politician who says a whole lot but never does anything,'' says Mr. Andrews, standing outside a quiet downtown office building here.

It may be good the presidential election is 13 months away: President Clinton faces some image repair work in his home state.

His standing here is emblematic of the political woes confronting Mr. Clinton throughout the South.

Sure, some of this is just the standard grousing all presidents seem to go through from the folks back home. Don't forget that George Bush was as much as 17 points down in his adopted Texas going into the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston.

Yet Arkansas is a small state, where the hometown boosterism runs deep, and Clinton is the only Razorback to ever make it to the White House.

Most analysts still expect him to carry the state next November, even though his popularity has been slipping here. The problem is, it may end up being the only trophy the White House takes in the region.

Georgia and Tennessee - Southern states that supported him three years ago - have turned increasingly Republican.

In Louisiana, the other Southern state that voted for Clinton, polls show him slightly ahead.

With his numbers down in the South, Clinton is more at a political disadvantage than he was in 1992.

''It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on him to deliver in other regions, and it means he has very little margin of error and probably needs a third-party candidate,'' says Alan Secrest, president of Cooper and Secrest Associates, a Democratic polling firm in Alexandria, Va.

Clinton is doing well in California, the Midwest, and the New England states, says Del Ali, vice president at Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. in Columbia, Md. ''But those are must-win states,'' Mr. Ali adds.

The president's ratings have also jumped nationally. Since May, his job rating has increased anywhere from seven to 10 points.

In his home state, where nearly everyone on the street of this mid-sized city seems to have a strong view of the president, Clinton doesn't seem to be winning any popularity contests. Some political experts contend the boy from Hope, who won 53 percent of the vote in '92, is slipping in ratings.

In Arkansas, a Mason-Dixon poll last summer put Clinton ahead of Republican front-runner Bob Dole by only two percentage points - 46 percent to 44 percent.

His lead may have widened since then, though. ''It's not so much that Clinton's rebounding significantly but that Dole and the Republicans are starting to fall apart,'' Ali says.

Fallout from Whitewater

Still, this summer's Whitewater hearings and the subsequent indictments of Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and the Clintons' business partners, James and Susan McDougal, on charges relating to fraudulent financial transactions, have brought negative attention to Arkansas. Some say this has hurt Clinton's image.

Meanwhile, state Republicans boast of longtime Clinton supporters in political and business circles switching allegiances. For example, Donald Tyson, chairman of chicken supplier Tyson Foods, is now backing Republican candidates.

Clinton's indecisiveness on some issues has frustrated many here and around the country, but analysts contend his style of leadership is misunderstood.

''What gets him in trouble is he's a consensus builder, he's always trying to find the center. Because of the way he operates, he's accused of being timid, wimpy, with no principles,'' says Cal Ledbetter Jr., a political scientist at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock.

Clinton, says Mr. Ledbetter, usually starts out low in polls, but his figures almost always improve as the election draws nearer. ''He's the world's best campaigner. If people write off Clinton, they forget that in Arkansas, as in years past, he just turns them around.''

Chance for GOP

Despite what the pundits say, the Republican Party here holds out hope - however quixotic - of a Republican carrying the state.

Members of the Republican Party are more optimistic than ever before that the GOP is carving a niche in this Democratic bastion. ''We've probably seen greater growth since '92 than we ever did when we had Bush or Reagan in the White House,'' says Richard Bearden of the Republican Party of Arkansas.

But Ledbetter and other analysts say despite the numbers, Clinton will without a doubt carry Arkansas in the '96 election.

''No matter what the polls say here or elsewhere, the local people won't desert him,'' Ledbetter says. ''It doesn't mean people won't criticize him ... but many people here are proud to have an Arkansas boy in the White House. And many people see attacks on Arkansas as attacks on Clinton, which helps,'' he says.

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