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In pivotal Arkansas races, Democrats turn to 'Big Dog' Clinton

By Steve Barnes

LITTLE ROCK Ark. (Reuters) - With two high-profile races unfolding in Arkansas this year, Democrats have turned for help to the politician they dub the "Big Dog," former President Bill Clinton, a one-time governor of the southern swing state.

Arkansas is in the sights of the Republican Party, which is trying to gain control of the U.S. Senate by unseating incumbent Democrats like Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Republicans are also looking to win back the governorship. Democratic Governor Mike Beebe cannot seek re-election because of term limits.

The globe-trotting Clinton has returned to his native state several times this election season to rally Democrats and pose for selfies with fans at parties to stock campaign coffers.

"Bill Clinton is irreplaceable," said Sheila Bronfman of Little Rock, a longtime Democratic Party activist and consultant who worked in all of Clinton’s campaigns. 

"He gets people enthused and he can raise money like nobody else," Bronfman said.

In the Senate race, Pryor is fighting a well-financed, Tea Party-backed Republican challenger, U.S. Representative Tom Cotton. In March, Clinton was the main draw at a fundraiser that local media said raised about $1 million for Pryor, considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

In the race for governor, former Democratic U.S. Representative Mike Ross is in a tight race with Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman who helped prosecute the unsuccessful impeachment case against Clinton in 1999.

There are no plans for Clinton to return, but Democratic officials expect he will come back if his campaign stops make a difference in the races.

Although many years separate Clinton from his time in the governor's mansion and the White House, his star power is seen as outshining that of current President Barack Obama, at least in Arkansas.

Obama lost Arkansas by 23 percentage points to Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and is considered too divisive a figure to help Democrats in the state.

Clinton's wife Hillary, considered a top contender among Democrats for a 2016 presidential run, is also a star in the state, crushing Obama in Arkansas when they ran in the 2008 Democratic primary for president. But she is not as big a star as her husband.

While Democrats consider Bill Clinton a strong card to play, Republicans say he is a distant figure, now removed from state politics.

'DIFFERENT PLACE'

In recent years, Republicans have scored a number of political wins, including gaining control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in a century. Republicans also occupy five of Arkansas' six congressional seats, a reversal of a partisan ratio that held for three generations.

"Arkansas is a different place than when the Clintons were here before," said Doyle Webb, the Arkansas state Republican chair.

But Clinton, who won six terms as governor and carried the state in his two races for president, still polls strongly at home.

A survey in early May by Public Policy Polling reported Clinton had a 55 percent favorability rating in Arkansas. An NBC News/Marist poll in the same period put Clinton’s favorability rating among Arkansans at 70 percent.

Besides his two appearances this year for Pryor and Ross, Clinton has helped raise cash for former protégées, including James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Clinton's presidency, and who seeks to succeed Cotton in the House. 

Clinton is mostly seen these days discussing policy with powerful world figures. But one of his strongest talents has been winning the support of the rural poor who form a large part of the Arkansas population and have typically voted Republican.

"The Clinton brand is still very positive in Arkansas and brand loyalty is worth a whole lot," said Hall Bass, a professor of political science at Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia, Arkansas.

(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Peter Cooney and Clarence Fernandez)

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