WITH politics heating up across the nation, Little Rock is in a blaze. Presidential front-runner and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has put this city of 185,000-plus into national focus. Its small-town atmosphere has given way to a pace quickened by thousands of "imports" - campaign organizers, volunteers, and journalists - and debate about the state's record.
At the massive Clinton-Gore headquarters, which stands diagonally across from Bennett's United States Army Supply Store and the local headquarters of the US Army Recruiting Battalion, strategists are busy countering Republican allegations that Clinton dodged the draft and wined and dined with Communist officials as a reward for his anti-Vietnam War stance and countering attacks on Clinton's Arkansas.
Arkansas Times columnist and political editor John Brummett is amused that his state has emerged "as a major issue in the race for the leader of the world." Arkansas is "not as gosh-awful as the Republicans say, but it's not the blossoming utopia...that Bill Clinton implies," he says.
"Republicans can't afford to provide an objective perspective" that, under Clinton's stewardship, Arkansas' economy has made steady, though slow, improvement "which just happens to be precisely opposite from the direction in which the national economy is moving," he says.
Clinton, however, says Mr. Brummett, "can't afford full perspective, either." Despite the great fanfare about the state's job growth, most of the 17,000 people he removed from welfare got jobs "plucking chickens or temporary work at Wal-Mart", positions that pay below the national average.
Clinton's contention that Arkansas leads the nation's job growth is tricky, Brummett says, because Arkansas started from a much lower base line of existing jobs than other states.
Political opponents are using Clinton's record as a springboard for attacks. "He ruined our state, why should we give him a chance to ruin the other 49?" asks one Arkansan who never voted for Clinton and won't support him now. His comment reflects a broader distaste for the governor's tax hikes (on retail sales, gasoline, food and used cars), toughened education requirements and civil rights efforts.
But many Arkansas leaders view their governor's national prospects as an opportunity to help mold the national agenda on education and crime prevention and to advance economic development issues that are essential to this poor Southern state.
Kay Goss, senior assistant for intergovernmental relations in the Arkansas governor's office, says her boss's accomplishments should prove to be a bonus for local Democrats. She points to Clinton's fight to finance improvements in education: "We've moved from 49th to 42nd in the nation, and we don't have to say `Thank God for Mississippi' anymore."
Whatever their persuasion, politicians in Arkansas are definitely big fish in a little pond. "Arkansas is a great state for politics. Here, you can bootstrap yourself out of obscurity," says prosecuting attorney Mark Stodola, running for his second two-year term.
Mr. Stodola is one of many local and state officials who are active in the Clinton-Gore campaign. Crime, an ever increasing problem in both urban and rural America (Little Rock itself has 30 gangs), is foremost on his agenda.
Stodola is now drafting proposed responses to the nation's soaring crime rate. He has engaged prosecutors and attorneys general from across the country to consider issues like streamlining federal law-enforcement agencies and the coupling of federal and state prosecutions of violent crime.
State Sen. Jerry Jewell - the president pro-tem elect of the Arkansas State Senate and the first black to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction - stresses the importance of increasing educational and job opportunities for Arkansas blacks and the need for black men to become role models for their youth.
Arkansas is one of the two states in the Union that has failed to enact a civil rights law. And, like many Southern states, it is still struggling to keep the Klu Klux Klan at bay, and out of the poltiical mix.
Even Pastor Rex Horne's Little Rock Immanuel Baptist Church, where the Clinton family worships, is the focus of election year politics. A group of 53 Texan Baptists came to disrupt church services in protest of Immanuel Baptist's support of Clinton. Before he was arrested for trespassing, the head of the Texas group tried unsuccessfully to blast Pastor Horne, the Immanuel Baptist Church, and the Southern Baptist Convention "and all those who refuse to demand that Bill Clinton be disciplined for his unbib lical support of the homosexuals, the feminists, and the pro-choice crowd."
Observers say the altercation is one measure of how divided the Southern Baptist vote is on Clinton's presidential candidacy.