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Small-town boys who nurse big ambitions: David Usborne in Texarkana on the humble origins of presidential hopefuls

IT IS about as likely as two party leaders in Britain growing up in the same row of council houses and decades later fighting each other in the same general election - perhaps more improbable, given the breadth of America.

And this is hardly the terrain to inspire any boy to run for the nation's highest office. The land is flat and scrubby, chickens outnumber people and armadillos wander the highways.

And yet this remote part of the country - known locally as the Four States Region because here Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma meet - has thrown up not just this season's Democrat hopeful, Bill Clinton, but also Ross Perot, the tycoon insurgent running as an independent.

Texarkana, the boyhood home of Mr Perot, sits squarely on the border between north-east Texas and south-east Arkansas. Thirty miles along Route 30 into Arkansas lies Hope, a much humbler place where Mr Clinton was born and lived until he was nearly six. These towns are the quintessence of Middle America: rural, God- fearing, far removed from the big cities and from big-city politics.

One of the oddities of the campaign so far is the popular perception of Mr Clinton as a product of the elite. Hardly so. His father died before he was born and his mother, Virginia, left him with her parents while she went to Louisiana to study nursing. She remarried and with her new husband, Roger Clinton, later took Bill to live in Hot Springs, 50 miles north of Hope.

Recently damaged by fire, the modest house of Mr Clinton's grandfather, Eldridge Cassidy, now stands empty beside the railway tracks in Hope. He ran a tiny grocer's shop in the black part of town. Mr Clinton recalls how serving customers in that store ensured an early empathy with the black community, which drives him today to battle racial division.

George Wright, a boyhood friend of Mr Clinton and now an administrator at Hope's hospital, is 'in awe' of his pal's quest for the presidency but not surprised by it. Both still keep in touch. 'In his younger years he was just a big, rather clumsy, likeable kid, wanting to be everybody's friend. I guess that way he was born a politician,' he remarked.

Janie Mohon, 69, used to live opposite Clinton's grandparents and her daughter Donna was the same age as 'little Billy'. She recounts the day she went into the garden to call Donna in for tea only to find Billy, aged 5, trying to kiss her behind a tree. 'My Donna was the first girl Billy kissed,' Mrs Mohon boasts. 'He was such a sweet, rambunctious boy.'

Hope, with a population of 10,290, is mostly agricultural. It is the fifteenth largest city in Arkansas and yet its tallest structure is the spire of the Baptist church on Main Street and the highlight of its calendar is the annual watermelon festival in August. In the post-war years of Mr Clinton's boyhood, when cotton farming was contracting fast, times were especially lean.

If Mr Clinton has underplayed his humble beginnings, Mr Perot has, if anything, rather exaggerated his. Compared with Hope, Texarkana was, and still is, a metropolis. At the junction of four main railroads, it was an important trading centre which, because of its proximity to four states, was also home to disproportionate numbers of hobos and fugitives.

And by Texarkana standards, Mr Perot's family was well-to-do, living in a tidy brick house in a leafy part of town. His father, Gabriel Ross Perot, was a respected local cotton broker, whose motto was: 'Sell it. You can't eat it.' His mother, Lulu May, was leader of the Ladies Garden Club.

Hayes McClerkin, partner in a local law firm, used to sit next to Mr Perot at the city's only private elementary school, the Patty Hill School, renowned for its strictness and emphasis on play acting and public speaking. Still a close friend, he grins doubtfully when asked about the carefully cultivated tales of young Ross taking his paper-round on horseback into the most dangerous parts of town. 'He did have a paper- round. But about the horse, I don't know. It was just as likely he did it from the front seat of his father's car,' he confided.

Almost every detail of Mr Perot's young life explains the person he is today. Formative events included the death of his elder brother, Ross, and his decision to change his name from Ray to Ross to ensure his father's honour could be carried into the next generation. There was Ross's enrolment, when he was 12, to the Boy Scouts, where in 16 months he achieved the highest rank. His scout manual is now on display at the Texarkana Scout Centre, built with Perot money.

'He was always a disciplined kid,' recalls Mr McClerkin. 'We used to go hook us a beer up on the beach at Red River. Ross would come but never drank the beer. It just wasn't in his character to get into that kind of thing.'

Not then, and not now.