He defeated Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation Chairman Tom McRae handily in the primary race.
During the 1990 campaign, the issue of marijuana use was raised. When asked if he had ever used drugs, Clinton replied, “… Not as an adult in Arkansas."
In the general campaign, Clinton faced ex-Democrat Sheffield Nelson. During his debates with Clinton, the GOP nominee charged that student SAT scores were falling. Clinton replied that Arkansas’s national reputation was in fact improving, and that school graduation and college matriculation rates were up sharply. He criticized Nelson for reversing his stand on a tax increase for education.
Clinton campaigned with the support of neither teacher nor labor groups. During the primary, the AFL-CIO declined to endorse Clinton or his opponent. Clinton attacked the labor confederation for supporting him only when it was convenient. “You’ll get the reputation of saying, ‘If you side with us and we lose, we’ll blame you'.” As for the AFL-CIO’s concerns about labor polices, Clinton was just as blunt. “My job is to save jobs, I don’t ask you to agree with me. Just put yourself my position.”
Clinton prevailed on election day with 57 percent of the vote – his narrowest margin of victory. By the start of the last decade of the 20th Century, Republicans were showing increasing electoral muscle in state elections elsewhere in the South, but the decade began with Democratic victories as usual in Arkansas. Clinton sought and received an astonishing fifth gubernatorial term (albeit with a slimmer 57 percent margin). After the 1990 election cycle, over 90 percent of the 135 state legislators remained Democrats and all seven of the statewide executive branch officials were Democrats.