A HUGE poster-size picture of Gov. Bill Clinton that greets arrivals at Little Rock's airport is accompanied by a message: "Arkansas's own. Bill Clinton. America's Choice."
It's part of the Clinton "C'mon down!" campaign - an invitation to see the Democratic nominee's home state and an effort to combat Republican attacks on his gubernatorial record fighting poverty, improving education, and protecting the environment.
But locals have devised a much more efficient and far-reaching way of putting Americans in touch with Bill Clinton's Arkansas. The Arkansas Travelers, more than 300 Arkansans who volunteer their time and pay their own way, have been cruising the country, going door-to-door, and working subway stops and shopping malls. The group is a collection of politicians, professionals (lawyers, doctors, teachers), retirees, war veterans, farmers, housewives, and students.
"We are ambassadors of the state on behalf of Bill Clinton," says Sheila Galbraith Bronfman, group director and veteran political consultant. "Voters may know the Democratic platform. They may know where Bill stands on the issues. But what we're finding out ... is that people really want to know what kind of a guy he is. We're Bill's friends and we think we can do some good."
A key Clinton strategist agrees. Craig Smith, state operations director for the Clinton-Gore campaign, says he fields requests from many of his 50 state directors who want to plan Travelers tours through their districts.
"They're in demand now," Mr. Smith says. "Most people in this country will never meet a presidential candidate or even someone who has met a presidential candidate. People have known George Bush for 12 years. What helps those people who are undecided - people who just don't know enough about who Bill Clinton is - is to hear from someone who does. Travelers provides that personal validation. They can approach undecided voters and say `Hey, I know you're thinking of voting for Bill Clinton. I went to kinde rgarten with him....' "
TO sit with a group of proud Arkansas Travelers is to hear everyone talk at once, promoting the merits of "our friend Bill" and just how well they know him. "We all have our own stories," Ms. Galbraith Bronfman says. "That's right," adds her husband. "He officiated at our wedding and his signature is on our marriage certificate." Local prosecutor Mark Stodola adds quickly: "Bill and I go back to 1974, when I volunteered for his first campaign. I was his scheduling coordinator when I was in law school." M r. Stodola, a public official now busy campaigning for his own reelection this fall, volunteers travel time for Clinton when he can.
Many voters only think of Hillary Clinton as a hard-core career woman and not a mother, says Little Rock public high school teacher Judy Trice, whose husband, lawyer Bill Trice, is a volunteer Traveler. "Our child car pools to school with Bill and Hillary's daughter, Chelsea. They're very good friends."
The personal touch of the Travelers proved very important in the New Hampshire and Georgia primaries, Smith says. That was a time when the Travelers hit the big cities and rallies, and stayed by their candidate's side when he was hurdling a long line of "character issue" obstacles.
During the primary season in Chicago, for example, where rush-hour crowds were practically numb from constant politicking, the Arkansas Travelers had no trouble drawing listeners. "The thing that stopped them was our accents," says Ann Henderson, executive director of the Arkansas Transit Association, who has known the Clinton family since she was in junior high school. "People can tell we're from Arkansas, and it sure makes a first impression."
During this fall campaign, the Travelers have focused on small towns and television and radio opportunities. As operations heat up at Clinton-Gore headquarters here, regional campaign managers are competing to bring Arkansas Travelers to their states.
But the biggest trip the Travelers are planning is several months away. Galbraith Bronfman and her hopeful troops have reserved hundreds of rooms at a Washington hotel, just blocks from the White House. The date: presidential inauguration week, January, 1993.