Bush Ventures to Clinton Turf, Honors Sam Walton : Republicans: The trip to Arkansas is billed as nonpolitical. The gravely ill Wal-Mart founder is given the Medal of Freedom.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the day Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton emerged as the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination, President Bush visited the governor's home state on a trip he insisted had nothing to do with politics.

Bush made the journey to present the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to one of its richest men, Sam Walton, the gravely ill 73-year-old founder of Wal-Mart Stores.

But the three-hour stop also completed what has been a 50-state tour by Bush during his presidency and served as a symbol, at least, of the way the White House has begun to turn its attention to November's general election.

As he arrived in Arkansas, Bush predicted he would "do well" in Tuesday's Republican presidential primaries in Michigan and Illinois. He did, winning big victories that were expected to deal a near-fatal blow to the aspirations of his GOP challenger, Patrick J. Buchanan.

Clinton, meanwhile, scored victories in both states, which most political analysts believe puts the Democratic nomination within his grasp.

Some Bush political advisers said they had warned that the hastily planned trip to Clinton's back yard was premature. But they said the President had insisted on making the visit as a personal tribute to Walton, who is suffering from bone cancer.

Walton, who built the Wal-Mart empire from one store to a $9-billion fortune, now is confined to a wheelchair, and Bush choked up during the ceremony at the company's headquarters in Bentonville as he praised the entrepreneur as an emblem of "America's success."

"I think it's important that all Americans understand that some things are going very, very well in the United States of America," Bush said. "And one of those things is Wal-Mart."

Even if the visit bore few overtly political flourishes, Bush's rush southward to embrace a rags-to-riches story served as a sign of his zeal to spare no mileage in his search for evidence of a healthy economy.

The visit also dovetailed neatly with his emphasis on "jobs, jobs, jobs" in his reelection campaign. Wal-Mart, with 380,000 employees nationwide, has a corporate philosophy that stresses creating jobs by buying American.

While hoping to put the Buchanan insurgency behind it, the Bush camp has been less eager to acknowledge that it has already begun to turn its sights on Clinton, now regarded as the near-certain general election challenger.

Instead, Bush advisers hope until mid-summer to draw on the prestige of the White House and public antipathy to Congress in waging a campaign that pays Clinton as little heed as possible.

As part of that strategy, White House officials feigned shock when reporters suggested that the Bush visit might have something to do with Clinton. Referring to one of Clinton's rivals, Deputy Press Secretary Gary Foster scolded, "You all didn't raise that . . . when we were in (the) home state" of former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.

In his appearance Tuesday, Bush did not disguise the pride in his voice as he noted that the citizens of Bentonville "seemed glad to see the President of the United States."

Wal-Mart has retained its Arkansas roots even as it has grown beyond the region. The chain also has links to the Clintons--the governor's wife, Hillary, has a substantial financial stake in the company and serves on its board of directors.

Walton's family has generously supported many of Clinton's past campaigns. This year, Walton has contributed the legal maximum of $1,000 to both Clinton and Bush.

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