Hillary Clinton returned Thursday to the turf that gave her husband's presidential campaign an unlikely boost last year, shuttling into Orange County to spread her gospel of renewed family values, women's rights and support for children.
The wife of presidential hopeful Bill Clinton talked with teen-agers at a Santa Ana high school and spoke at a $100-a-plate political fund-raiser, repeatedly stressing that she wants to be a "voice for children" in America.
She expressed deep concern over the civil unrest in Los Angeles, suggesting that debate should focus on rebuilding riot-ravaged communities and providing solutions to underlying problems such as the disparity between rich and poor. She also took a backhand swipe at President Bush.
"We need to recognize that for millions of Americans, the 1980s were an economic disaster," Clinton said in an interview with The Times. "If we don't change our economic policies and provide more incentives for individuals and businesses to invest in our country . . . we're not going to reverse our decline."
The Orange County visit, which kicks off a four-day swing through California, marked the first time Clinton has returned to the heavily Republican region since an unlikely coalition of GOP stalwarts held a fund-raiser for her husband, in part to register dismay over the President's performance.
"I think the support Bill received here early on from business people looking for real leadership has been a real plus to the campaign, and it has steadily grown in the months since then, so we have a lot of key supporters here," Clinton said Thursday.
One of the organizers of the December breakfast fund-raiser, Western Digital Corp. Chairman Roger W. Johnson, joined the Democrats during Thursday's gathering at the Santa Ana railway station, saying he would stick by Clinton at least through the June 2 primary.
"We're going to get him nominated, and then we'll see after that," Johnson said. "He represents views on issues that I could support. . . . I really think my own party is misreading the temperament of me and my friends."
Hillary Clinton drew a standing ovation at the beginning and end of her lunchtime speech before more than 100 boosters. She stressed that her husband's candidacy "is an opportunity to go beyond politics as usual" and push a "pragmatic and positive agenda."
She said the election is "particularly critical" for women's and children's issues. With one out of every five children in the United States living in poverty, Clinton said, "my concern has almost reached a panic state" about the need for everything from better prenatal medical attention to improved child care.
"We're being penny-wise and dollar-foolish in our attitude toward children," Clinton told the crowd, adding that in many U.S. homes "there are more guns than grown-ups, more violence than love."
Clinton also said she feels that the looming showdown in the Supreme Court over abortion rights should work to galvanize the women's vote.
"I think we have a better shot than we've ever had in the past to mobilize women," she said.
Earlier in the day, Clinton visited Century High School to spotlight Santa Ana Volunteer Youth, a program that encourages students to volunteer their time to charity and other causes.
She was greeted at the high school's front gate by a welcoming party that included Principal Gerald Arriola, student body president Edgar Munoz and Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Rudy M. Castruita.
Munoz, 17, presented Clinton with a bouquet of Shasta daisies and white tulips. When Clinton learned that Munoz was just a junior, she smiled and said, "A junior and you're already president? That's very good!"
In the school library, Clinton told a heavily Latino crowd of students how her own high school in Chicago was beset by squabbling among teen-agers of various nationalities. To defuse the situation, administrators forced the various factions to meet and talk. "We found out we were not much different even though we thought there were these huge, huge gulfs between us," Clinton recalled.
Asked by one of the student volunteers if her husband would push an effort similar to President Bush's "1,000 Points of Light" program, Clinton said she hopes that even more powerful community participation can be sparked.
"We all ought to be points of light. There ought to be 250 million points of light in America," she said, adding that Bush's program leaves "a lot of darkness. We need to light up the whole sky."
Although Clinton drew a standing ovation from the students and was frequently interrupted by applause, not all the teen-agers were sold on the prospective First Lady or her husband.
"She has all these good ideas, but I have my doubts," said Cristina Garcia, 17. "I've seen candidates do this--make promises and then not keep them. . . . If I'd vote, it'd be for that rich millionaire, that (Texas industrialist Ross) Perot dude."
Joe Garza, meanwhile, went into the event with an open mind and came out favorably impressed.
"What she was saying about bringing people together sure is needed with all the gang problems," Garza said. "People like me and a lot of other kids get afraid on a daily basis. . . . What she was saying is right on."