LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — President Barack Obama's health care overhaul has never been popular in Arkansas, a state where even most Democrats regard the law as politically toxic.

But with a quarter of the state's working-age population uninsured, a governor who once said he would have voted against the law now wants to use it to widen government-funded coverage to thousands of additional families. And he's relying on the move to help prevent a Republican takeover of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

Gov. Mike Beebe, the first Southern governor to back the law's expansion of Medicaid, has become an unlikely advocate for a central part of the overhaul that would expand Medicaid, a position made easier by the fact that he's not seeking re-election.

"I think it's good for our people because it's helping folks that don't have insurance now that are working their tails off," said Beebe, who is barred by term limits from running again. "They're not sitting on a couch somewhere asking for something."

Two years ago, as the health care debate raged in Washington, Beebe said he wanted the president to focus more on the economy and even declared that he would not have voted for the bill if he were in Congress.

But it passed, and federal officials assured Beebe that the state could drop the expanded Medicaid coverage later if it wanted to. That's when the governor announced his support.

Beebe and other Arkansas Democrats are counting on voters to feel the same way. They say the benefits of a government program that helps so much of the state's population should outweigh any animosity toward the president.