Clinton committed himself during the Democratic primary campaign to work on three issues: increasing education funds, expanding job opportunities, and holding down utility rates. Clinton reached the primary with 41.7 percent, and in the runoff against Joe Purcell, he captured 54 percent of the vote.
The general election campaign against Republican incumbent Frank White was one of the ugliest in recent memory. White's advertisements portrayed him as a tough minded, no nonsense, execution-eager, good old boy, in to contrast to the bleeding heart, East Coast, Ivy Leaguer, ACLU liberal Clinton who specialized in commuting killers' sentences. Clinton’s campaign ads portrayed White as an untrustworthy, interest dominated plutocrat who might run with the good old boy hounds by day but slept with the utility foxes at night, while showing Clinton as a caring and concerned down-home, Baptist family man who wanted nothing more than another chance to fight the fat cats on behalf of the little guys.
Clinton and White battled over education and utility rates. Clinton said that better schools and education facilities would attract more industry to Arkansas and would lead to job growth.
Hillary Rodham also changed her name to Hillary Clinton.
Clinton promised voters that he would have a better staff running the governor’s office and criticized White for his ineptitude for raising utility taxes. He attacked White for increasing the price of medicine for Medicaid recipients while at the same time giving away $12 million in corporate tax breaks.
The Arkansas Gazette endorsed Clinton, praising his “ability to bring the ideas and leadership the state so desperately needs. Mr. White’s shortcoming was that he had nothing much in mind to do as governor.”
Despite a constant barrage of attacks, Clinton defeated his opponent with 54.7 percent of the vote. He was the first Arkansas governor to be defeated for re-election and then later return to the statehouse. In 1982, Clinton became the first Arkansas governor to recapture the office, and then secured re-election by even more impressive margins (63 percent in 1984, and 64 percent in 1986, again over Frank White). Since voters in 1986 also endorsed a constitutional amendment providing the governor with a four-year term, this brought Arkansas through the 1980s with the Democrats still commanding the state’s political scene.