PARMA, Ohio -- Bill Clinton's latest bus-stop campaign tour pulled right up to the front door of white middle-class America yesterday, commandeering the sidewalks and streets in this suburb of Cleveland where pirogi are king.
Stepping off the lead bus in an eight-bus caravan in front of Parma Pierogies, Clinton and his vice-presidential running mate, Sen. Al Gore, along with their wives, immediately threw their hands into a crowd that clogged the sidewalks along Ridge Road, in front of Parma Beauty Shop, Parma Pets, Parma Golf Shop, a store called Incredible Inflatables and Ciotta Chiropractic Center.
"Howya' doin'?" a man asks Clinton.
"I'm hot," the Democratic presidential candidate says.
"Take off your tie, then."
And make yourself at home and have a pirog, that East European ravioli that sticks to the ribs and weighs heavily in the stomach.
The Clinton-Gore caravan, the third such bus sortie and a campaign venture quickly assuming the stature of political folklore, paraded through here yesterday after stepping off in Cleveland Friday.
Along the way, both the candidates continued to shoot back at criticism heaped on the Democratic ticket during the Republican National Convention. They raked President Bush for breaking his pledge of no new taxes four years ago and scored him for economic policies that favored the wealthy while reducing the standard of living of millions of working-class Americans.
"Let me tell you what this election is about. . . . We propose to put Americans back to work," Clinton says to a crowd of thousands at a rally here.
At every stop, including a speech to senior citizens in a public housing project, Clinton repeated promises to create jobs and ,, incentives for business. He promised reform of welfare policies and additional funding for education and law enforcement. And he got roars when he advocated expansion of health care and a plan to offer college scholarships to students who pledge to pay off their debt in public service.
The Lake Erie bus tour, bearing the theme of "On the Road to Change America" and bound for a finish today in Buffalo, N.Y., landed in this heavily Democratic, working-class suburb of 93,000 after a day on the streets of Cleveland.
Friday night, on the way to an East Cleveland church, the buses passed block after block of old brick factories and residential neighborhoods, past wooden homes with rickety, two-story porches, past vacant lots, past kids in oversized T-shirts waving both hands, past old women waving from lawn chairs, past an old man in a cockeyed Cleveland Indians cap pumping his fist in the air.
There was a thick crowd waiting along the iron police barrier on Quincy Avenue in front of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. The church was already full, and it was already rocking with gospel music. And it was already hot.
Not hot. Steam. Christian sauna. It was body heat to the nth degree, down in the sanctuary -- sizzling in 20 floodlights for 10 TV cameras -- and up in the balcony. Men and women sucked the air out of the room. All the windows were shut. The freshly painted yellow walls seemed to be sweating.
Everyone sweated. Bill Clinton more than most. Two towels' worth of sweat, as he sat on a high-backed throne on the sanctuary, listening to local pols extol him and defend his wife. The most eloquent defense of Hillary Clinton -- and on this trip she is surrounded by defenders -- might have come from Brenda Terrell, a slight woman in a yellow dress, a trustee of the church: "Hillary Clinton understands that to be a supportive spouse, you don't have to be a silent, unopinionated spouse."
That comment got Arsenio-style "whoofs" and prolonged applause.
Through all, Clinton sat still and sweated. He listened to Gore quoting Gandhi and Shakespeare. He listened to an old man singing a gospel version of "My Way." He listened to local pols introducing each other at yawning length. He listened to the pastor of the church telling an emotional story about his Georgia daddy's desperate attempts to vote in the dark days before civil rights.
Clinton listened; Clinton sweated.
And then, thank God, he got his chance, and when Bill Clinton stood to speak, sweat pouring through his blue, Oxford shirt and probably through his suit, the choir sang, "We Shall Overcome." And Clinton waited at the lectern.
Then, in that humble-shucks way of his, his Southern accent seemingly more pronounced, Clinton says: "Ladies and gentlemen, I've never been so close to heaven and still been so hot."
The church tore apart with laughter. "If we did not have faith, we would have exploded by now."
He gave a passionate and thoughtful sermon -- delivered too smoothly, too rapid-rolling to be really late in a long day that had started in Detroit. It was actually stunning, the kind of sermon churches like Olivet have heard from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, mixing old-time religion, folksy jokes and boyhood stories with Clinton's standard knocks on Bush, a recitation of economic woes and his promises of change, change and more change.
He gives the same speeches everywhere the buses take him.
Earlier in the day, at just the hour when an old downtown full of people usually evaporates into a concrete-and-glass void, the buses had moved into 6th Street and St. Clair Avenue. The only crowd seemed to be the one forming for a country music festival in a park nearby.
The bus caravan turns a corner and, suddenly, we're in Clinton country.
Faces started appearing in the windows of office buildings; a security guard waved from a lobby. Music, definitely rock music, rattled and hummed somewhere up ahead. Then people. Men, women, kids, all scurrying alongside the caravan, pointing and giggling and applauding -- even applauding the reporters' buses.
And suddenly, the buses stopped in a splash of sun just outside the big shadows of Cleveland's skyscrapers, and it looked, for the slightest instant, as if the entire downtown work force had committed human gridlock on the big, lush lawn in front of the old, stately Board of Education building.
A few thousand people squeezed into a square and faced 6th Street. Dozens of them carried homemade signs and Clinton/Gore placards. Twenty men, half of them sporting T-shirts, union baseball caps and beer bellies, clung to the base of a huge flagpole. One held a life-size photographic, cardboard cutout of George Bush, a sign dangling from his shoulders: "I'm Voting For Clinton and Gore."
The music was Fleetwood Mac: "Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow," and it cracked crisp and clean from big, black, elevated speakers.
The music trailed off, followed by the kind of pregnant din common at rock concerts in the dramatic interval between recorded warm-up and the arrival of the stars. Then, without introduction, first the wives and then the candidates stepped up to a platform in a warm cascade of late afternoon sun -- Tipper in a fuchsia suit, Hillary in blue, sunglasses off and hooked to a coat pocket. They were arm in arm like sorority sisters, waving with the free hand, leading the way for the big men on campus. First a ripple of applause, then an explosion.
Rep. Louis Stokes, dean of the Ohio congressional delegation and the coattail pol of the moment, grabbed the microphone: "Let's hear it, Cleveland, for Clinton and Gore." More cheers, and more like a roar this time.
By now, the crowd seemed to encircle the platform. Men and women leaned out of windows in buildings.
"Cleveland! Cleveland! Cleveland!" cracks the city's young and loud mayor, Michael White, who offers, from a distance anyway, the goateed look of Spike Lee in a hip-as-a-GQ-ad, soft-shouldered suit. "Cleveland! Cleveland! I got a message for George Bush; Pack your bags! And I got message that goes out to my man, Dan Baby Quayle: Pack your bags!'
Of course, they loved it. And they loved Gore, and they loved Clinton. Couldn't get enough of Clinton. Wouldn't let him leave. So a few minutes later, when all the Bush-bashing speeches were done, Clinton worked the crowd. Dove in hands first.
Secret Service agents turned their backs to him; they encircled him, but Clinton worked the crowd, all along 6th Street as the sun was going down and his star was rising.
It doesn't end 'til they pull him inside the bus.