Former President Bill Clinton returned to his home state Friday to help a beleaguered ally and delivered a broadside against some of the most powerful interests in the Democratic Party.
Using unusually vivid language to describe the threat against Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Clinton urged the voters who nurtured his career to resist outside forces bent on making an example out of the two-term Democratic incumbent.
He pounded the podium with Lincoln at his side, warning that national liberal and labor groups wanted to make her a “poster child” in the June 8 Senate run-off to send a message about what happens to Democrats who don’t toe the party line.
“This is about using you and manipulating your votes to terrify members of Congress and members of the Senate,” Clinton said in the gym of a small historically black college here.
Clinton didn’t mention Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s name – the lieutenant governor worked in the former president’s administration – or single out any specific liberal groups. But he didn’t need to.
Halter, who held the incumbent to under 50 percent in the May 18 primary election, has been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in advertising from liberal groups and unions angry with Lincoln over her hesitance to support labor organizing legislation and ties to the business community.
It’s a clash that pits the ascendant forces of the progressive left against a centrist Southern Democrat cut from Clinton’s own Democratic Leadership Council mold, a proxy fight that the former president and longtime Arkansas governor sought to underscore by noting that Lincoln’s “opponent is not her opponent.”
The tension between the two competing models surfaced early Friday, even before Clinton took to the stage, when the AFL-CIO lobbed a pre-emptive strike.
"Bill Clinton and Blanche Lincoln took us in the wrong direction when they supported NAFTA," said spokesman Eddie Vale in an email to reporters. "They sent thousands of Arkansas jobs to Mexico and Canada, and yet they’re still bragging about their support of the job-killing deal. When it comes to protecting and creating jobs in Arkansas, they just don’t get it."
Yet even though he lives in New York now, Clinton, who was governor here for 12 years, sought to prove he still knows how to reach Arkansans. Playing on both local pride and a wariness of outside influence, he suggested voters would be mere pawns for an agenda of party purification if they opposed Lincoln.
“If you want to be used that way, have at it,’ he said to about 200 Democrats at Philander Smith College, speaking without notes for 20 minutes
With a detailed recitation of Lincoln’s work on behalf of Arkansas down to the jobs she saved at a manufacturer in Ft. Smith, Clinton exhorted voters to not direct their discontent at her.
"If you want somebody to channel your anger, don't vote for her," Clinton said. "If you want somebody to get up and go to work and change your life for the better, you should vote for her."
The former president added: “This isn’t about a poster child, it’s about your child.”
Lincoln, smiling broadly after Clinton’s effusive endorsement, picked up where the former president left off, pleading with Arkansans not to take out their frustrations with the political status quo on her.
“My vote in Washington has never been for sale and yours shouldn’t be either,” she said.
And just as Clinton did, Lincoln suggested she was an undeserving victim of a general sense of electoral discontent– and that voters ought not to let such emotions dictate their votes.
“I was raised to learn that you do not use anger and hatred to try and solve your problems,” she said.
Talking to reporters after the rally, Lincoln was even more direct when asked about the unions hammering her on the state’s airwaves.
“Outside groups need to go home,” she said.
The senator said that included national business groups that have backed her campaign.
Halter’s campaign avoided criticizing Clinton and declined to address his central argument.
“We respect that the president is honoring a commitment he made quite some time ago before Bill Halter entered the race,” said Garry Hoffmann, a Halter spokesman.
Hoffmann added that Halter was on an RV while Clinton was with Lincoln.
“Arkansans are expressing at stop after stop that they're ready for change and that they're prepared to vote beginning June 1st to make change happen,” he said.
Clinton's appearance, which Lincoln said she requested, may represent the embattled incumbent's last chance to revive her campaign and save her career.
Specifically, the hope from Lincoln forces was that Clinton’s visit would both fire up the state’s African-American voters and some of the old-guard white Democrats who were close to the former president when he was governor.
The son of Hope and Hot Springs – who now has a street named for him in the capital -- remains wildly popular among Arkansas Democrats. Yet the midday crowd he drew at the start of a holiday weekend was far smaller than what he’s drawn for candidates in other states. And, despite his popularity, it’s unclear whether his endorsement will have any resonance in an election cycle where outsiders, real and perceived, are trumping the establishment.
But after underperforming in the primary last month and just barely nipping Halter, Lincoln desperately needed a shot of adrenaline heading into the run-off.
A new poll out this week showed her losing to Halter by three points and fundraising reports indicated that he also outraised her over the last three weeks. Further, the organized labor groups she and Clinton bemoaned have re-doubled their efforts since the primary and are pouring millions more into the state, mostly for TV ads.
Democratic insiders here, including Lincoln backers, acknowledge that Halter is enjoying a burst of momentum but believe the race still remains tight.
“He’s putting in a lot of money and his help is putting in a lot of money and a lot of money can do a lot,” said Robert McLarty, a Democratic strategist in Little Rock. “A few million dollars can really move the needle in Arkansas.”