Bill Clinton: Can He Make It Out Of Arkansas?

It happens every four years. Democratic pollsters, fund-raisers, and think-tankers decide that the party's only hope for capturing the White House is to put a Southern moderate at the head of the ticket. With the Dixie Flash, they argue, the flight of Southern white males to the GOP will cease, and Democrats will be back in the Presidential ball game.

The difficulty in making this strategy work is that the Democratic nominating process is dominated by liberal activists and labor. So even though a big clump of early Dixie primaries seems to favor the emergence of a Southerner, the race is usually won in the big Northern industrial states.

But that hasn't stopped the Southern strategists' search for a champion. The field isn't promising. Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and Senator Charles S. Robb have knocked each other out in an ugly squabble over bugged telephone calls. And Senator Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, who was the Southern hope in 1988, seems to be hanging back.

MEDIA MAGNETISM. That leaves Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton as the only Democrat who appears interested in running. He is getting a hard look from the would-be power brokers. Clinton's youth--he's 44--and his political base in underpopulated Arkansas make him an unlikely contender. But his activist governorship, and some strong performances on the rubber-chicken circuit, have created a bit of a Clinton ground swell. "He's the most promising young politician in America today," gushes Democratic activist Bill Galston.

A couple of years ago, few would have taken Clinton seriously. An interminable nominating speech on behalf of Michael S. Dukakis made him the object of national ridicule in 1988. Since then, Clinton has greatly improved his act. "He has really worked on it," says Democratic consultant Frank Greer, who has advised the Arkansas governor. "We have only two politicians who are compelling on television. New York Governor Mario Cuomo is one. Clinton is the other."

What sets Clinton apart is his record of problem-solving. In three terms, he has turned the state's abysmal education and welfare systems into national models. He favors giving parents more choice in their children's education, tougher enforcement of child-support laws, and mandatory job training for welfare recipients. "Baby boomers," he says, "insist on more responsibility from those getting government help."

PLUCK. Clinton has a national platform as chairman of the right-of-center Democratic Leadership Council. At DLC gatherings, he preaches that government should forget social engineering and help people to succeed on their own. To appeal to the middle class, he backs a cut in Social Security taxes and higher personal exemptions for children.

Clinton's biography is a model of pluck: Born in Hope, Ark. A dirt-poor kid, he's raised by his grandparents. Young Bill works his way through Georgetown University, earns a Rhodes scholarship, graduates from Yale University law school. Then, he returns home and is elected governor at 33. Small wonder he's exciting the party's more conservative leaders. Maryland developer Nathan Landow says his fellow fund-raisers are excited about Clinton. "There's a lot of buzzing about him," he says.

But to convert the buzz into a serious Presidential candidacy, Clinton will have to find a way around the primary sinkhole that has swallowed up most Southerners in the past. For this problem, the Arkansas governor--who warns that the Democrats "can't continue as a national party" without an infusion of centrist ideas--hasn't found an answer.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.