No matter which Democrat wins, Arkansas is still Reagan land

A haven for retirees, who have flocked to this state. A land of opportunity for young men and women hungry for top state elected offices.

A ''maverick'' political state that on Saturday will either give Gary Hart another little boost in his quest for the Democratic nomination or provide added weight to Walter Mondale's contention that he is slowing down the Hart hurricane.

But regardless of who wins in the Democratic caucuses here, in Arkansas, as in many Southern states, Ronald Reagan is considered a tough opponent in November.

But Mr. Reagan's victory margin was paper-thin here in 1980, and popular young Gov. Bill Clinton and others will be working hard to defeat him. And with unemployment still high and with farmers in this state feeling financial stress, the Democrats are optimistic.

Welcome to Arkansas.

You may remember it as the state to which President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops in 1957 to enforce a federal court order to integrate a high school in this city. Gov. Orval Faubus had just used the state's National Guard to turn nine black students away - in order, he said, to avoid a riot.

Or you may know it as the home state of the late Sen. J. William Fulbright, who was the influential and nationally respected chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Today, it is a state in transition, in several ways.

Politically. Democratic since the Civil War, the state is ''moving to be more independent,'' says Steve Clark, Arkansas' young attorney general.

Retirees arriving from Northern states are often Republican or independent, he says. The Democratic Party in Arkansas is now ''directed by less than 20 people'' and is not very active, he adds. To avoid losing more elections (two of the state's four congressmen are Republican), it will have to become more active , he says.

Wearing a peppermint-striped shirt and a tie (no jacket), Mr. Clark claims to have been the nation's youngest attorney general when he was first elected in 1978 at age 30.

Today he says: ''I've not made it a secret that I'd like to be governor.'' Governor Clinton, who claims he was the nation's youngest governor when elected at age 32 to his first term in 1978, may run for the Senate in 1986 - if he wins reelection as governor this year, as expected.

Economically. The state has lost a number of low-paying garment and other manufacturing jobs to other countries. It is seeking high-tech and other industries to replace them.

But the state is still poor. And it has one of the lowest percentages of college graduates among adults. Taxes are still low, and with too many exemptions to please Attorney General Clark.

Attracting new industries is easier with an educated work force. So the state has just passed a 1 percent boost in its sales tax to help local school districts pay for meeting increased educational standards that were recently adopted by the state.

''We're off to a good start,'' says Hillary Rodham Clinton, the governor's wife, appointed by him to head an educational-standards task force.

She typifies the important role some Arkansas women are playing in state and civic affairs. The state treasurer and the state auditor are women.

''We are a poor state financially, but Arkansas is a much better place to live than it has been before,'' says Sheffield Nelson, head of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company here and a man who says he will ''probably run for governor in 1986.''

''I look at Arkansas as one of the emerging states,'' he said with an eye to its potential.

Across town, veteran state Sen. Ben Allen, a Democrat, says most vestiges of racial campaigning have disappeared in Arkansas. He was one of a handful who voted in the state Legislature against closing the schools to avoid integration in 1957. He calls himself a ''progressive,'' insisting he is not ''liberal.''

''We're not a Deep South state,'' says Calvin Ledbetter Jr., a political scientist here and a Mondale campaigner. It is ''half Western and half Southern, '' he said in his passive-solar home here overlooking a wooded park. The state has always had a terrible image problem as the hillbilly state. ''Arkansas has never had its day in the sun,'' he said.

Some here think that day is coming.

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