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Clinton Closes His Bus Tour on High Note

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

From a thunderous rally here to a buoyant gathering in his hometown of Little Rock, Bill Clinton closed out his six-day tour across middle America on Wednesday with an emotional appeal for optimism.

In front of the main public library in downtown St. Louis, close to 30,000 people waited for hours in stifling humidity to see the Democratic presidential nominee and his running mate, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore.

Arriving to a deafening din, Clinton urged his followers to join him on a “great crusade” to change America’s political course.

“We didn’t get into this mess overnight and we won’t get out of it overnight. But we’ll make progress,” declared Clinton, thrusting his fist into the air as his running mate looked on approvingly.

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“The thing that kills a country is when people get up every day and they don’t think tomorrow is going to be any better, when they think that nothing is going to change, when they think nobody cares about them.

“We want to restore to this country a genuine sense of community and caring, to say we’re all in this together, we’re going up or down together . . . .

“This is America. Let’s start acting like it.”

Later, after coming home to Little Rock for the first time since he formally accepted the Democratic nomination last week, Clinton defiantly pledged to spare no effort in his quest for the presidency.

“We have just a little over 100 days in this campaign, 100 days of struggle and effort, 100 days of spirit and hope, and I want you to know that no matter how tough it gets and how long the days get, we’re going to stay to the end and we’re going to win this campaign,” he declared before about 1,000 hometown fans.

The two rallies ended a remarkable journey that delivered the Democratic presidential ticket into the town squares and front yards of an America usually forgotten in the hustle of modern political campaigning.

The adventure began the morning after the Democratic National Convention in New York and took Clinton and Gore, their wives and scores of aides and reporters on a winding tour of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois before the buses rolled to a stop in Missouri.

During their journey, Clinton and Gore moved aggressively to co-opt the political identity Republicans have used to their benefit--that of the party that represents the patriotism and values of the middle class.

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Over and over, Clinton sought to send a message that his brand of Democratic activism is different from that repudiated by voters in five of the last six presidential elections.

“We want a new day for the Democratic Party and a new day for America,” he said in St. Louis.

The Democratic candidates also were swept up in an emotional embrace not seen by Clinton in the long months of this roller-coaster campaign, not even when he was flying high earlier this year.

All six days brimmed with political theater and photogenic images of heartland America, precisely as the campaign had hoped.

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On Tuesday night, as the candidates made their way across southern Illinois, townspeople drawn by the candidates or the commotion--or both--gathered on their porches to wave and twirl American flags. Children stood at the roadside, shaking sparklers in the night air.

As the entourage entered Vandalia, Ill., more than 10,000 people--nearly twice the town’s population of 6,000--stood on street corners and in the grassy square surrounding the former Illinois state Capitol. Many of them had staked out their positions 12 hours before the candidates arrived, townspeople said.

After Clinton spoke, he and hundreds of others lit candles that flickered against the glowing image of the towering, pillared old Capitol. As Clinton moved into the crowd to shake hands, a thousand arms reached toward him, moving like waves in a sea of adulation and curiosity.

That mood continued Wednesday in St. Louis, where the noontime rally drew the tour’s biggest crowd. After the speeches ended, hundreds pressed against the buses in the motorcade and signed their names and messages of support to the Clinton/Gore banners tied to the vehicles’ sides.

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The optimistic messages were a reflection of the generally upbeat tone Clinton has adopted since accepting the nomination a week ago--and of the emotional high he was riding as the tour ended.

“I love it,” he told reporters traveling aboard his campaign plane en route to Little Rock.

Comparing the bus tour to the more traditional big city, airport-to-airport schedule of recent presidential campaigns, Clinton said, “You can’t imagine from my point of view how much more grounded in reality it is.”

The Clinton campaign had planned for the tour to serve as an introduction of the ticket to the nation, and it worked: In every town, the Democratic visit drew reams of publicity.

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And everywhere he went, the Democratic nominee criticized Bush for what he called “the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover,” the Republican President who presided over the opening of the Great Depression.

Clinton’s denunciation of Bush’s handling of the economy reached its peak at his St. Louis appearance. Bristling with rage, he excoriated Bush for policies that Clinton said favored the rich and left the poor and middle class struggling to stay afloat.

“What has it brought us? More decline, more inequality and an America that is the mockery of the world. When I’m your President and Al Gore your vice president, people will look up at us with respect and not down on us with sympathy.”

At each of his stops, Clinton also made sure to sell himself and his proposals. He described, sometimes sparingly and other times in detail, his plan for boosting investment in education, job training and economic relief for the middle class. He also issued familiar calls for welfare reform and promised to crack down on parents who refuse to support their children.

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“Every American will have to be more responsible for the future of this country,” he said.

Always, there was the careful regard for the icons of democracy.

In Vandalia, the Capitol square was lined with American flags--the symbol used so definitively by Bush in the 1988 campaign. And Clinton invoked the words of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, to dress down Bush.

“Abraham Lincoln said once, in a time of great crisis for our country, ‘As our cause is new, so we must think anew and act anew,’ ” Clinton said.

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“Abraham Lincoln is turning over in his grave tonight to think of what George Bush and Dan Quayle have done to the Republican Party . . . . There was a time when both parties at least tried to speak for mainstream America and the families and the working people of this country who get up every day and work hard and play by the rules. But no more.”

Clinton also repeatedly played on the campaign’s theory that, in a world no longer dominated by tensions between the East and the West, Americans are ripe for a new focus on domestic prerogatives.

“We won the Cold War and everywhere around the world people say we want freedom and democracy, free enterprise, the things that made America great,” Clinton said Tuesday night in Vandalia. “What will we say if everywhere they embrace our ideas and we let the American dream die at home?”

The reaction sparked by Clinton demonstrated the difference between being a politician seeking the presidency in the primaries and having officially claimed the nomination.

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During his campaign’s previous upswings, Clinton drew good crowds. But no appearance compared with the reception he received in St. Louis to cap his bus tour.

Crowds filled the nearby streets for blocks on all four sides of the stage. People crowded onto balconies and stared out of office windows. And as the motorcade left town for the airport, hundreds more lined the streets and overpasses, waving gleefully.

The candidates and their entourages parted company Wednesday afternoon in St. Louis, with each returning home by airplane--Clinton to Little Rock and Gore to Carthage, Tenn.

OTHER POLITICAL COVERAGE: A5,16,18,24

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