ERIE, Pa. -- They camp in highway rest stops and supermarket parking lots like so many groupies and gawkers waiting for touring rock stars or country-western singers.
They bring picnic lunches, lawn chairs, flashlights, sparklers, flags, battery-operated camping lanterns, handmade signs, video recorders and, in at least one instance, an old Bell & Howell 8mm movie camera. They bring their kids. Their kids get cranky and cry and fall asleep.
They wait for the buses, deep into the night.
It was 1 o'clock yesterday morning -- two hours past schedule -- before Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton's bus tour -- the so-called Lake Erie Tour to "change America" -- pulled into the parking lot at the Erie Comfort Inn. And a few thousand people still were there, coming in from places like Corry, Edinboro and Wattsburg.
It might be that there's nothing else to do around Erie on a Saturday night. It might be that folks seldom get a chance to get up close with the famous. Some of them, working-class Democrats, remember when John F. Kennedy passed this way, and they want to connect with history.
Whatever the reason -- many say what Bill Clinton likes to hear, that they plan to vote for him in November -- they come out.
This tour, the third one since the Democratic Convention last month, broke through the urban ramparts of Cleveland Saturday night and headed into the gritty industrial heartland of Ohio and Pennsylvania, on the way through New York farm country yesterday to Chautauqua, a shady Victorian village numerous presidents and candidates have used as summer retreats. The final destination was to be Buffalo last night.
At each stop, Mr. Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore, repeated their theme of change and promises of higher taxes on the rich, new jobs, more educational opportunities for young Americans and more progressive health care for everyone.
Over the weekend in the politically strategic states, the Clinton/Gore caravan passed through long stretches of suburbia, past malls and shopping centers, and into small towns with old coal mines, five-and-dime downtowns and streets so narrow that Bill Clinton, as inclined as he is to reach out and touch, could have leaned through a bus window and grabbed a lawn ornament.
Out on Ohio Route 21, south and west of Erie, there were Single Trucking Mothers. It's what Republicans would call a special interest group. When the campaign tour pulled into Brady's Leap rest stop on the way to this Pennsylvania city, Single Trucking Mothers were among those waiting. At least, a founder of the group was.
Meet Virginia Sayre, 42, from Mogadore, Ohio. Owns her own rig. Hauls auto parts to 48 states and Canada. Mother of two. Grandmother of two. She came to cheer Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore because she didn't like what she heard at the Republican National Convention, in particular, the suggestion that working women, like Hillary Clinton, ought to be seen and not heard.
"I like Clinton and I don't want this anti-feminism stuff 'cause I got a living to make," she said.
There were hundreds lining the streets of New Castle, Pa., JTC including, for the second time on this tour, a freshly-married couple (he was 19, she was 16) in gown and tuxedo. A tall, heavyset man in a blue baseball cap high-fived Mr. Clinton and said, "With ya all the way, Bill."
There were a few thousand at the Lawrence County Fair, where Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore got a high school marching band escort, then addressed the crowd as bungee jumpers and Ferris wheel riders sliced the night air.
While some anti-abortion demonstrators and Bush supporters jeered him -- "Vote Republican. Keep us in business! Hey, who brought down the Berlin Wall? Hey, Gennifer Flowers!" -- Mr. Clinton recited his domestic agenda.
Hundreds stood in the weedy roadsides of Interstate 79. Hundreds more, including a couple of hairy bikers, met the buses at the Ohio-Pennsylvania line. An elderly couple, riding his-and-hers lawn tractors, headlights flickering, drove out to greet the buses with American flags.
And at every break in the trip -- the big artfully choreographed rallies as well as the "planned spontaneous" roadside stops -- the crowds got the same treatment.
Floodlights bathed the scene. Campaign technicians set up loudspeakers and a platform. Rock music kicked up. A local politician welcomed the crowd, called for a big, friendly greeting, then introduced Mr. Gore.
Almost immediately the Tennessee senator introduced Hillary Clinton and his own wife, Tipper. Invariably, Mrs. Gore said: "Thank you. We love you. We won't let you down." Mrs. Clinton usually says about the same thing. But when the buses crossed from Ohio into Pennsylvania, she added a personal touch. Her daddy was from Pennsylvania, played football at Penn State back in the 1930s, and her brother played for Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions back in the 1970s. And the crowd loved all that.
And then Mr. Gore warmed up supporters with raspy blasts at the Republican administration and says George Bush and Dan Quayle can't be trusted.
"Could we trust [Mr. Bush] when he called himself the environmental president?" Mr. Gore asks. "Could we trust him when he called himself the education president? Was he trustworthy when he made that pledge?"
And always, without failure, Mr. Gore played the song he first sang at the Democratic National Convention.
"What time is it?" he asked the crowd.
And the crowd never seems to miss the rejoinder: "It's Time . . . For Them . . . To Go!"