Though Democrats control the Arkansas
statehouse, both the state’s U.S. Senate seats, and three of four seats
in the U.S. House, the party likely will be hard-pressed to win the
state in November’s general election.

Arkansas has trended Republican in
presidential elections this decade — George W. Bush won the state by 6
points in 2000 and 9 points in 2004 — and national analysts are placing
Arkansas’s six electoral votes safely in the Republican column now that
Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. 

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Obama had an awful showing here in the
February primary against former Arkansas first lady Hillary Clinton. He
lost by 51 points, his largest margin of defeat during the primary
season. Only the Delta counties of Crittenden, Lee and Phillips
produced a majority for Obama. 

Arkansas Republican Party Chairman
Dennis Milligan said that though the state GOP isn’t taking a John
McCain victory in Arkansas for granted, it feels good about an Obama
candidacy.

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“We think that we match up very, very
well with Senator Obama,” he said.  “I have no doubt in my mind that
Senator McCain will carry the state of Arkansas.”

The most recent Arkansas general
election polling, conducted by Rasmussen on May 12, showed McCain
beating Obama 57-33. The same poll found Clinton ahead of McCain 53-39.
Against Obama, the poll had McCain winning the votes of 38 percent of
Democrats and 24 percent of independents.

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Some think that gap might change once the passion of the primary cools down.

“I think some of the Obama resistance
is from Clinton loyalists,” said Jay Barth, professor of politics at
Hendrix. “That maybe closes it by 10 points.”

Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Bill
Gwatney also believes that Obama’s numbers will improve, though he said
Clinton supporters in Arkansas will need time to get used to an Obama
candidacy.

“For 34 years there’s been a lot of
folks in Arkansas who’ve campaigned for the Clintons. There’s a certain
disappointment for Arkansas Democrats. We can’t just go out and ask
them to start working for Senator Obama today.”

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Prominent Arkansas Democrats have
already begun to gather behind Obama. Last weekend Gov. Mike Beebe and
the Democratic members of Congress voiced support for him in a joint
statement. Beebe had good reason to get on board. Obama appeared at a
campaign rally for Beebe and other state Democrats in 2006.

“My expectation is that by election day Arkansas will be a battleground state,” said U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder of Little Rock.

Obama’s biggest challenge here may be
to convince rural, white voters to choose him over McCain. Obama had
particular difficulty with this voting bloc as the primary season
progressed. A CNN exit poll showed that 55 percent of Democratic
primary voters in Arkansas lived in rural areas. 70 percent of them
voted for Clinton.

“In Arkansas, there are swing counties
— rural and overwhelmingly white — that run from the southwest corner
to the northeast corner of the state,” Barth said. “Those counties
decide elections, and those voters are exactly the kind of voters that
have been challenges for Obama.”

Gwatney argued that McCain is
vulnerable on a number of issues, many of which are important to that
bloc of Arkansas swing voters.

“We’re going to talk about Senator
McCain voting against the farm bill, and voting against the GI bill,
and voting against scholarships for college students,” Gwatney said.
“We’re going to talk about Senator McCain voting against the Martin
Luther King holiday. I think his record is more important than Barack
Obama’s. Senator McCain does not help rural white Arkansans, no matter
what he tries to tell them.”

Barth added that, since many people in
rural areas are members of military families miffed at how the war has
been run, Obama might be able to gain traction with them by emphasizing
that McCain would continue the foreign policy of President George W.
Bush.

Milligan emphasized that McCain will
try to turn the foreign policy debate to his own advantage here. “I
think that Arkansans are very patriotic and appreciate the service that
Senator McCain has brought to his country. I think they appreciate his
foreign relations experience.” 

State Democrats are optimistic that
Obama’s fundraising prowess will mean he has enough cash to run an
Arkansas operation. Pulaski County Circuit Clerk Pat O’Brien, an active
Obama supporter, said, “If somebody’s looking for credibility as to why
I’m saying Barack Obama is going to compete here, it’s money. We have
resources that [Democratic nominee] John Kerry didn’t have in 2004.” 

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O’Brien, who has been in contact with
the campaign, said Obama anticipates opening an Arkansas office in a
month or so, though no date has been set yet. 

Milligan said plans for the McCain
campaign in Arkansas are still up in the air, though the Republican
National Committee has named Molly Donlin to head the RNC’s
co-ordinated campaign effort in the state.