LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- To Bill Clinton, it must sound like old home week out on the campaign trail of America.
Everywhere his presidential campaign roams, he hears a refrain of the bad-times blues boiling up from the voters in a singsong lament of a nation with schools that can't teach, businesses that can't compete and government that can't help.
For much of the country, this litany is new and jarring. But back in Mr. Clinton's home state of Arkansas, it is old and familiar, a statewide anthem of the subconscious that for decades has accompanied every weary joke about shoeless hicks and Ozark hillbillies, and every numbing report of low rankings in wealth and progress.
Therein lies both a great strength and a glaring weakness of Mr. Clinton's campaign.
On the one hand, his past seems to have made him uncannily attuned to the wavelength of voter despair.On the other hand, as governor of Arkansas for 11 of the last 13 years, Mr. Clinton must answer for why his state continues to founder by so many measurements.
He began hearing his state's sad tune early on, and it grated on him.
"Our people weren't dumber than other people, even though a lot of people outside the South thought they were," he said. "And they certainly worked as hard or harder than anybody else. I always thought it was largely a matter of education and a kind of backward attitude among leaders. And I don't think there's any question that our long resistance to building an integrated society helped to keep us poor."
Nowadays, Mr. Clinton makes a similar defense of Americans everywhere, usually after rattling off a string of rankings that show the United States slipping into a status as, one might say, the Arkansas of the industrialized world.
As his former chief of staff, Betsey Wright, puts it, "There are so many ways that Bill Clinton is right for these times, and that [his background from a downtrodden state] is one of them. He is the only person I know of in this country who can bring people together with their government again."
But the flip side of this advantage -- the lingering weakness of Arkansas -- leaves many obvious targets for any opponent inclined to attack.
A sampling: Among the 50 states and Washington, various non-partisan organizations rank Arkansas dead last in median family income, environmental policy and worker safety; 50th in youth unemployment; 49th in teacher salaries and overall school spending; and 46th in health insurance coverage.
Organizations that have published such rankings report a brisk trade in reprints to rival campaigns and lengthy conversations with interested White House officials.
So far, only one of his four major Democratic opponents, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, has prodded this point of attack, but Republicans have vowed to strike it with a fury if Mr. Clinton wins his party's nomination.
Not that Mr. Clinton hasn't engineered some improvements in his home state, including some that are fairly dramatic, particularly in education.
As bad as the numbers sound, some represent improvement during his tenure, and Mr. Clinton's allies maintain that statistical snapshots don't do justice to the energy and innovation he has brought to governing Arkansas. His fellow governors seemed to agree last year when they voted him the nation's most effective governor.
Nor, Mr. Clinton says, do such numbers show how Arkansas, like all other states, had to make up for vanishing federal dollars during the Reagan-Bush years. When the 1980s began, federal aid contributed 36 percent of the state's revenue, and by 1990 the share was down to 24 percent.
But his critics -- among them some of his former supporters -- will tell you that this former Rhodes Scholar and political wonder boy has often failed to live up to his bright potential by frittering away clout with too much compromise.
"The governor generally takes the path of least resistance," said J. Bill Becker, the state AFL-CIO chief who has been at odds with Mr. Clinton almost since he took office. And, you can walk out of his office thinking that the governor is on your side, Mr. Becker said, only to find out later that he's with the enemy. "He's pretty slick."
Ah, yes, "Slick Willie," the nickname used by those who see his easy charm as a veneer of political artifice. Friends who have looked deeper say the warmth is genuine. And as for seeming to talk out of both sides of his mouth, Sid Johnson, president of the Arkansas Education Association teachers union, says that's a common misinterpretation of Mr. Clinton's willingness to understand both sides of an issue.
Mr. Johnson, who once bitterly opposed the governor for his proposal to test the competency of state teachers but now is an ally, said, "To some people, 'Oh, I see your point,' means, 'Yes, I agree with you.' "
If Mr. Clinton has sometimes seemed to be in too much of a hurry to move up the political ladder -- he was first elected governor at age 32, and a win next November would make him president at age 46 -- this stems from the most influential event of his life, which came three months before his life began. That's when his father, William Jefferson Blythe III, died in a car accident at age 29.
"When I turned 30, I remember going down and visiting my father's grave, thinking I'd done something he hadn't done," Mr. Clinton said. "I think a lot of the good and bad of my early years was animated by this sense of running out of time. . . . But as I've gotten older, it's had a different effect. It's kind of made me much more relaxed about the slings and arrows of fate. Whatever happens to me now, I'm way ahead."
His mother married Roger Clinton when Bill was 4. The change brought him a new name and a roof over their head, but his stepfather also carried the problems of a violent alcoholic. Sometimes he beat Mr. Clinton's mother. Once he vented his anger by firing a gun into the living room wall.
Took refuge in work
Mr. Clinton took refuge in his schoolwork, becoming the straight-A Mr. Achievement of Hot Springs, and when he was 16, he got the inspiration of a lifetime, shaking the hand of a young president, John F. Kennedy, while representing his state in Boy's Nation. His high school yearbook photo of the handshake says it all -- the gee-whiz grin and eyes shining with adoration -- and from then on he was hooked.
His schoolwork kept up its heady pace, right on through Georgetown University, Oxford University and Yale Law School. Along the way, he used a favorable ruling from the local draft board to stay out of the Vietnam War, although he eventually entered the draft lottery, drew a high number and was never called for service.
But it was not until he was 26 that his political skills began to flower, when he helped run George McGovern's presidential campaign in Texas.
Directing that ill-fated effort along with Mr. Clinton was Taylor Branch, author of "Parting the Waters," the Pulitzer-prize winning account of the civil rights movement. Mr. Branch, who now lives in Baltimore, said Mr. Clinton even then was a master at keeping peace in the fratricidal world of Texas politics.
This talent served him particularly well when the campaign's national staff decided on a novel but potentially embarrassing solution to a problem with a few of the state's elected women officials.
The national staffers, mostly men in their 50s, told the Texas boys that the women were simply sexually frustrated, and decided to import "somebody from the 'Irish Mafia' from Boston who was supposedly gorgeous."
Mr. Branch said that Mr. Clinton and he blanched at the thought, but only Mr. Clinton had the necessary tact to tell the old guys that their plan was way out of line without making them furious.
Cross between LBJ and Elvis
"I've always said that he was a sort of a cross between LBJ and Elvis," Mr. Branch said. "He had LBJ's personal and political instinct, and literal love for the 'Let us reason together' kind of skill. But he also had Elvis's good looks, charm and sex appeal."
Two years later, Mr. Clinton put that combination to work in an upstart campaign for Congress, losing narrowly to a popular incumbent.
Two years after that he won a term as attorney general, and that became the stepping stone to his first term as governor in 1978.
Mr. Clinton took office with a full head of steam and a satchel full of ideas. But he apparently forgot some of the lessons of diplomacy he'd learned in Texas, and he bullied his way to a re-election defeat, and seemed destined for the obscurity of a one-term wonder.
But, building slowly at first and eventually swallowing his pride, he won back the job two years later, and that's where he has stayed since 1982.
When he returned, his focus was sharper, zeroing in on the two issues he would highlight during the next nine years: education and economic development. Judging by the current longings of the voters, he couldn't have picked a more appropriate tandem.
Education has brought his greatest laurels, and the case of impoverished Nevada County shows why. Before Mr. Clinton helped push through tough, new school standards in 1983, one area in the southern part of the county contained five school districts, each with fewer than 150 students for kindergarten through 12th grade combined.
None of the schools taught physics, advanced math, foreign languages or any laboratory science. Of the 55 high school seniors spread out among the five districts, only 11, or 20 percent, went to college.
Now the districts have joined up, cutting administrative costs and combining resources. The state chipped in $800,000 for a new central school to house everybody, and the math, science and language courses were added to the curriculum. Teachers in the district are slated for a $4,000 raise over the next two years. And now, about two-thirds of the seniors go on to attend college.
Statewide results, while not as dramatic, reflect the same trends, and test scores are up while dropout rates are down. All that despite the state's continued 49th place standing in overall teacher pay (48th place after adjusting for cost of living differences). In this example, at least, Mr. Clinton will have strong evidence that the numbers used against him may be misleading.
In economic development, consulting economist Charles Venus credits Mr. Clinton' policies with holding unemployment down and keeping the recession at bay, though state incomes are still woefully low.
But Mr. Clinton is ready with an answer to counter those numbers, too. "My answer will simply be, look where we started and look where we are. Last year we were 7th in job growth and creation, we ranked ninth in the country in '88, '89 and '90 in wage and salary growth."
Tax increases attacked
But it is the way Mr. Clinton has paid for his programs that seems to upset his critics most of all. Some cite the 27 tax increases he has presided over. Others criticize his heavy reliance on sales tax increases because a sales tax doesn't tend to be as progressive as an income tax.
Even with all those increases, the people of Arkansas still enjoy one of the nation's lightest tax burdens, ranking 46th, and Mr. Clinton's reliance on sales tax increases was encouraged by the state's Constitution, which requires a three-fourths majority in the Legislature for approval of an increase for any tax except the sales tax.
Not that Mr. Clinton is averse to flexing his muscle, despite his too-nice image. Ernie Dumas, a longtime Arkansas statehouse journalist who now teaches at Central Arkansas University, recalls the night in 1987 that a furious Mr. Clinton declared war on a lobbying cabal that had ganged up on him. The tale also illustrates how the governor might deal in Washington with a stubborn, splintered Congress.
As Mr. Dumas remembers it, Mr. Clinton was seeking to salvage a victory from a string of defeats at the hands of an alliance that included the state Chamber of Commerce, the poultry and timber industries, the Farm Bureau and cable television.
With most of the Legislature's substantive work done for the year, he quietly slipped in a proposal for a half-penny sales tax increase.
And, for a while, it looked as if it might work. Then word began to spread to the scattered lobbyists.
"They came huffing and puffing up the steps of the Capitol," Mr. Dumas said. "But they arrived in time and swarmed over the House."
Mr. Clinton lost again, and in a hallway he angrily vowed to put a lobbying reform initiative on the next statewide ballot. He did, and the voters passed it.
In the next session, the lobbyists reacted with an even greater show of strength. So, he placed more reforms on the ballot. They, too, passed and the session after that was one of his most successful to date.