LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- If Bill Clinton were a boxer, he'd wear velvet gloves and try to win on points -- talking points, that is.
He's not a milquetoast. But politicians and others who have watched the Arkansas governor agree he has a leadership style that values conciliation and consensus building over confrontation.
His major successes have sprung from an ability to galvanize public support and win over reluctant legislators with friendly persuasion. It is these qualities that supporters say he would bring to the White House if elected.
Shunning arm-twisting, he brings adversarial parties together, smothering conflicts and doubts with facts, figures, force of personality and an abundance of empathy. As good a listener as he is a talker, Mr. Clinton assures one and all that he understands their position and respects it.
But while this approach has served Mr. Clinton well, it also leads some to question his governing character.
His zealous willingness to see both sides of an issue, and at times express both, fuels his critics' image of him as wishy-washy.
And even friends take Mr. Clinton to task for his reliance on what one calls "honey and sugar" in getting legislative agreements. They wish sometimes he'd lose his patience and get tough with opponents.
If he is not always a bold leader, as his detractors argue, Mr. Clinton's devotion to consensus nonetheless has paid off in what most agree is his greatest achievement in Arkansas: education.
Mr. Clinton's career-long push for education reform has resulted in stronger school standards, more diversity in courses, smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay and a sharp increase in Arkansas college enrollment.
But he never would have accomplished any of this without changing the leadership style he brought into his first term as governor.
Just 32 years old when elected in 1978, Mr. Clinton had a lot to learn about governing before he could help Arkansans learn more in school. A generation younger than most members of the General Assembly, Mr. Clinton rubbed many the wrong way with an ambitious agenda and an inner-circle of idealistic but impolitic aides.
But he might have survived if he hadn't gotten so far ahead of public opinion, particularly on the issue of taxes. Sharp increases in automobile license and registration fees generated as much ill will as new revenue, contributing to Mr. Clinton's stunning defeat by a Republican in 1980.
"He was highly criticized during his first term for only relying on the advice of two or three people very close to him, almost operating in a vacuum, without seeking public input and without seeking broad support or advice," says Mahlon A. Martin, who was his director of finance and administration in later years.
Depressed, Mr. Clinton analyzed his mistakes and went back to voters to tell them he had made a mistake and ask forgiveness. He supplemented his personal contacts with an extraordinary televised apology: ". . . You feel I was often out of touch, that I worked hard on what I wanted to do but didn't always seem to care about what you wanted me to do."
His friend David R. Matthews, a former legislator, says, "One of the things Bill learned from his defeat in 1980 is you can lead people anywhere, but you can't drive them across the street."
He returned to power in 1982 a changed leader. More sensitive to public opinion and determined to have less abrasive relations with legislators and power brokers, he acknowledged in his victory speech he was being given a "second chance."
He didn't waste it. When the courts ruled that the state's school-aid distribution formula was inequitable, Mr. Clinton decided to seek more revenues through a tax increase and to strengthen educational standards.
"He initially kicked it off with the people," recalls Betsey Wright, // his chief of staff for several years and now a campaign aide. "I remember we had a 30-minute TV . . . in which he discussed key highlights and elements of the program." . At the same time, Mr. Clinton appointed his wife, Hillary, to head a committee to develop stronger school standards. It went to every county, soliciting views.
By the time the legislators met in special session, "people in their districts were literally begging for them to vote for" higher taxes for school reform, Ms. Wright says. The Legislature approved a sales tax increase, but in the face of business lobbying balked at increases in the corporate income tax and severance tax on natural gas.
Mr. Clinton has had a relationship with the Legislature that may be unique in Arkansas history. He is his own best lobbyist, and doesn't stop at phone calls and summoning legislators to his office in the Capitol.
He shows up at committee hearings asking to speak and hangs outside the legislative chambers during important votes, something other governors before him didn't do. "You'd see through the glass door Bill Clinton's nose," says veteran journalist and teacher Ernest Dumas. "He'd be out in the hallway with lobbyists cornering legislators."
Legislators who aren't ready to support Mr. Clinton know they have to be prepared to defend their positions.
"He always does have a great command of the facts," Mr. Matthews says. "I have been in the room where he talked to a legislator about the impact of a bill on the legislator's district and he knew as much about that legislator's district as the legislator. And that's a little disarming."
Former Sen. Max Howell, who served more than 40 years in the General Assembly, likened Mr. Clinton to the late Robert F. Kennedy in his ability to get inside a person's head.
Yet Mr. Clinton wouldn't use threats or undue pressure, Mr. Howell says. "He'd let you twist your own arm."
"He was never mean or vindictive," agrees Ben Allen, who retired from the Senate in 1990 after 32 years. But like so many of Mr. Clinton's supporters, Mr. Allen says wistfully, "Sometimes I would have urged him to twist arms."
An oft-spoken criticism of Mr. Clinton is that he tries too hard to please everybody. Some say the problem is that on occasion he works too hard to find compromise when there may not be grounds for any. As a result, he may seem indecisive.
Says Mr. Dumas: "He has problems making decisions that disappoint anybody."
But Ms. Wright, conceding that he may take longer to make a personnel decision, says that doesn't carry over to policy matters.
The one issue that divides opinions on Mr. Clinton's willingness to fight is tax reform, which has gone hand in hand with education reform.
Throughout the years, he has repeatedly sought without success to use the income tax system to finance improvements. Each time, the Legislature has rebuffed him, sometimes substituting a sales tax increase that requires the poor to pay as much as the wealthy.
His defenders say it's nearly impossible to alter income taxes because the constitution requires a three-fourths vote, while sales tax changes demand only a bare majority. Others wonder. "Sometimes he needed to have fought to the bitter end and didn't," Mr. Dumas says.
But Ms. Wright and Mr. Clinton's legislative backers point to the fact that if he couldn't raise revenues through income taxes, he was able to get the legislature to drop 250,000 poor people from the tax rolls.
"He's not someone who thinks there's only one way to win," she says. "And he doesn't stop in finding other ways."