HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) — Bill Clinton kicked off his second campaign swing through Arkansas this month on Friday, as the former president aggressively delved into his home state's politics to boost a slate of candidates with whom he boasts longstanding ties.
Speaking to a rally in his boyhood home of Hot Springs, the former Arkansas governor praised Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross and congressional hopeful James Lee Witt as exhibiting the type of bipartisanship voters crave.
"These people could be straight out of central casting for what you say you like," Clinton said as he shared the stage with the three candidates.
Early voting in the November election starts Monday. Clinton, who was in the state to attend his 50th high school reunion, also planned campaign stops during the weekend in his hometown of Hope, North Little Rock, Pine Bluff and Forrest City.
Clinton remains a popular surrogate for Democrats, especially in states where President Barack Obama is unpopular, and he also plans visits to Louisiana and Kentucky next week.
Clinton has taken on a particularly heavy role on the campaign trail in Arkansas this year, reflecting both his personal ties to the party's top candidate and the stakes of Arkansas' election. Pryor's race against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton is one of the most expensive in the nation and is key to the GOP's efforts to win the Senate.
Pryor is the son of David Pryor, a former governor and senator who served as Clinton's political mentor. Witt ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Clinton and Ross got his start in politics by driving Clinton around the state in the 1982 election.
"Not only is he campaigning for friends, which is important," said Skip Rutherford, a longtime friend of the former president and dean of school of public service that bears Clinton's name, "he's also the most effective person to ignite and motivate the base."
Republicans have made major gains in Arkansas over the past two elections, primarily by running against Obama and his policies. The GOP controls both chambers of the state Legislature and all but one spot in the state's congressional delegation — Pryor's seat. Cotton has regularly cast Pryor as too closely aligned with Obama.
Clinton mocked the number of times Cotton mentioned Obama during his debates with Pryor earlier this week, quipping: "For a guy with a degree from Harvard, he's got a pretty limited vocabulary."
Pryor continued to cast Cotton as beholden to outside conservative groups backing his bid.
"This seat isn't for sale. This seat belongs to you," Pryor said. "He has his billionaires, but I have you."
In response, Cotton's campaign criticized Pryor's comment during one of their debates that he defines the middle class as including incomes making up to $200,000.
"Senator Pryor is the one who has been hanging out with billionaires if he thinks 'middle class' in Arkansas is $200,000 per year," Cotton spokesman David Ray said in an email.
The state GOP has brought in several national figures to campaign, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The visits have been aimed at highlighting the unpopularity of Obama and other national Democratic figures.
Clinton warned against using the midterm election as a protest vote against the president, accusing Republicans of "trying to sell you snake oil."
"They're trying to stop the people of Arkansas from thinking," he said.
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