NEW YORK — As Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tells the story, he was on a flight from Utah when his seatmate offered to tell him a joke - "It's about this politician from Arkansas." Replied Governor Huckabee, as he rolled his eyes, "Wait a minute, let me tell you something before you embarrass yourself. I am a politician from Arkansas." The man stopped for a second and replied, "That's all right, I'll tell it real slow."
This is one of the ways - through a self-deprecating sense of humor - that Huckabee, a Republican, is now trying to change the image of the state and its politicos. This week, the governor lunched with reporters, met with editorial boards, and taped television shows in an effort to convince skeptics that the state is changing its ways.
But even Huckabee, the former lieutenant governor, admits it will take more than a few good wisecracks and free lunches. "It's pretty difficult these days being a politician in Arkansas - it's a tough job," he says.
The state is still trying to recover from its image as a place of shady land deals and failed thrifts. On July 15, Arkansonians watched their former governor, Jim Guy Tucker, march off in handcuffs after being convicted of fraud related to the failed Whitewater real estate venture.
Over the past month, newspapers have been filled with stories raising questions about Asian businessmen - with Little Rock connections - making large contributions to President Clinton's reelection campaign.
Huckabee's message is that there is more to the state than these "characterizations." In next year's legislative session, he hopes to get the predominately Democratic state legislature to approve a series of tax cuts.
At the same time, with the help of some local businesses, he is trying to limit the growth of the state government, which he describes as larger than the 47,000 people who work at Tyson's and WalMart, the two largest private employers in the state.
Huckabee believes one of the potential bright spots for the state is tourism. This past Nov. 8, voters approved a one-eighth-of-a-cent tax that will be used to help beautify the state and promote tourism.
This summer he and his wife, Janet, took their vacation on the meandering Arkansas River. He says the trip on a bass boat gave him a greater appreciation of the state' s clean air and water.
This clean image, he says, should be extended to the state for a different reason - on Election Day it rejected casino gambling by a 61 to 39 percent margin.
"We're going to be one of the few states left in the Midwest - a virtual oasis - where people will not be spending their paychecks on lottery tickets or to go to the slot machines," says Huckabee, a former Baptist minister.
Instead, he says, the state will focus on "family friendly" kinds of attractions. He says the model is Utah, which now has the nation's fastest growing economy.
Huckabee says he came to the Big Apple with this message, because it is the media center of the country. So, what does he think will happen to the state's credibility if the press discovers yet another minefield in Arkansas?
Quips Huckabee to a roomful of journalists, "We feel confident about the outcome because we have put a packet of cash under each of your chairs." Just another Arkansas joke.