CAN THE GOVERNOR of one of the smallest, poorest states in the South win the Democratic nomination for president? Can he if he is an intellectual, a one-time Rhodes Scholar, a Yale Law graduate? If he has a certain detachment, a sense of humor about his ambition?
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas is about to find out. He has scheduled a press conference for Thursday to announce his plans, and nobody doubts that he is going to go.
After a speech to the National Newspaper Association here, he was surrounded by local reporters. "Can you beat George Bush?" one asked.
"Not tomorrow," he said. "That's what we have elections for."
Clinton talked about the issues. Then Bill Simmons, chief of the Associated Press bureau in Little Rock, said: "That sounds awfully high-minded for a competition that can be settled on Willie Horton."
The governor replied that the Willie Horton tactic in the 1988 Bush campaign could have been handled -- by answering it directly and addressing the real issue of crime and people's fear of it.
Later, in a conversation on board a plane, Clinton talked about the irrelevance and ugliness of recent campaigns. "Maybe you have to be crazy to run for president these days. But I don't see this as a Don Quixote venture," he said. He told a story about a policeman who drove with him on a recent visit to Houston: A man 27 years on the force, who called himself a conservative.
"I saw you on C-Span," the officer said. "You going to run for president?"
"Do you think I have a chance to win?" Clinton replied.
"Hell no! With that war and all."
As they drove along, the governor asked what issues the policeman would use if he were running. The policeman talked about economic stress, stagnant wages, the ever-rising cost of health care . . .
And those are some of the very issues that Clinton can win the 1992 election with if he manages to focus the campaign on them.
"People now believe the presidency is about foreign policy," the governor said. "But that's not what they really care about in their own lives.
"I basically agree with E.J. Dionne's argument in his book that the recent elections have given Americans false choices. The Republicans won by dividing us -- by saying, 'If you're for civil rights, you're pro-quota,' and 'If you want government to help solve problems, you're for more taxing and spending.' So the Democrats lost the elections, but the people lost the aftermath. In 1988 Americans knew the Cold War was over. They wanted to move on from Reagan. Bush knew that -- it's why he talked about being the education president, the environment president. But he won on 'read my lips' and plastic surgery on Dukakis.
"Bush was hurt by the way he won that election. He was below 50 percent in the polls in 1990, but he was saved by Saddam Hussein."
The next campaign, Clinton said, should be about how to rebuild this country's internal strength so it can live up to its vision of itself and carry out its responsibilities in the world. "We have no strategy for our economic future," he said. "We have the biggest underclass of any major country. The middle class is under stress. The Reagan-Bush policy is just keep inflation down, reduce government. I don't think that will cut it."
A couple traveling in the plane came up to Clinton and thanked him for his education programs -- which have been a principal feature of his years as governor. Their two children had been helped by the higher school standards, they said, and had won college scholarships.
Education should be a major national emphasis, Clinton said: Sending a child to college today takes three times the percentage of family income that it did a few years ago. He spoke of a new national program of college loans to be repaid out of graduates' income or by doing national service. The Reagan-Bush effort to reduce federal support for college students was "nutty," he said.
"The brilliant achievement of the Reagan-Bush years," Clinton said, "has been to disable the presidency on the domestic front. There is a great need to change that now.
"The Democratic primaries could define the issues for the general election -- present the real choices this country faces. Bush may win in the end because people see him as having the experience in foreign policy, but the worst that could happen is to make him a better president in a second term."