VALDOSTA, Ga. -- Striking at the heart of President Bush' Deep South base, Bill Clinton campaigned colorfully across rural south Georgia yesterday, casting himself as a pro-defense Democrat who would keep the United States militarily strong.
Mr. Clinton continues to play it safe politically, a strategy that seems to be paying off, if polls, which show him leading Mr. Bush by as much as 20 points nationwide, mean anything. Even here in Georgia, a state Mr. Bush took by a lopsided 60-40 margin in 1988, the Democratic nominee holds a lead of 6 to 10 percentage points in the most recent public and private polls.
Yesterday Mr. Clinton, running mate Al Gore and their wives stumped the most conservative part of the state, breaking no fresh ground but stepping up earlier criticism of Mr. Bush for vetoing a family leave bill.
"You know, 72 countries have a family and medical leave, but we're being told by the president we can't," Mr. Clinton told an outdoor rally in Columbus, Ga. "I was taught to believe that America was the 'we can' country, not the 'we can't' country. We can have strong families and a strong economy."
The Arkansas governor used a daylong bus tour through counties like Muskogee and Chattahoochee and the towns of Tifton and Valdosta to advertise his Southern roots and arm himself further against Mr. Bush's draft-related attacks.
The Democrats drew only modest crowds on a muggy, showery fall day. However, at the last event of the day, more than 5,000 people were waiting for Mr. Clinton outside the Lowndes County Courthouse in Valdosta.
Earlier, at a rally in Columbus, home of Fort Benning, one of the nation's largest military bases, Mr. Clinton wrapped himself in the political embrace of Sam Nunn, Georgia's senior senator and the Democratic Party's leading defense expert in Congress.
"Bill Clinton will be a commander-in-chief we can trust," Mr. Nunn told a crowd in the courtyard of the Iron Works, the site of a Confederate arms plant in the Civil War.
The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman's god-like statusamong the state's conservative voters was diminished by his vote last year against the gulf war. But his endorsement is still regarded as influential, especially in central and south Georgia, whose battered economies would be much worse off without the billions in defense spending that flow annually through an array of local bases and defense plants Mr. Nunn has worked to protect.
Mr. Clinton, downplaying his plans to cut defense spending by more than Mr. Bush has proposed, said he would rely on Mr. Nunn's advice on defense matters if elected president.
Though three of the cities visited yesterday have military bases and Columbus is home to many military retirees, the draft issue appears to have done little to hurt Mr. Clinton here yet. Indeed, it does not seem to be attracting much attention.
The local newspaper, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, made no mention of Mr. Bush's attack this week on Mr. Clinton over the draft, by far the president's harshest assault so far.
Yesterday the paper reported that local Vietnam veterans didn't seem to care about the issue and were more concerned about the economyand Mr. Bush's proposals to cut veterans' benefits.
Staff Sgt. Ronnie Hall, an Army mechanic at Fort Benning who attended the Clinton rally in camouflage fatigues, said he wasn't interested in what the presidential candidate had done 20 years ago.
"That doesn't make him a bad person," he said. "You have to look at the overall record."
In stump speeches that dripped with syrupy southernisms, Mr. Clinton attempted to establish a cultural kinship with Southern whites, whose votes will determine whether the Democrats finally break the Republican lock on the South this year.
He spoke fondly of Moon Pies and mudcats (catfish) and former President Jimmy Carter, who hails from this part of the state, and described Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, a key early supporter, as having "a red neck holding up a big brain."
The bus tour, his fifth of the campaign, also appeared to be aimed at energizing the region's large rural, black population, whose votes are essential to Democrats running statewide in Georgia.
Stopping his bus near a large peanut warehouse in Parrott, Ga., Mr. Clinton addressed an enthusiastic, racially mixed crowd that was waiting for him outside an abandoned storefront. Mr. Clinton urged a big turnout in November to vote for state Sen. Sanford Bishop, a black Democrat who unseated an incumbent congressman in the primary and is heavily favored to carry the district, which is 52 percent black.
An impressive array of elected state and local Democratic officials rode the 11-bus caravan, which made periodic "impromptu" stops like the one to buy boiled peanuts at a roadside stand and another for a stock car racer who blocked the highway with his black vehicle and a sign that read "Bubbas for Clinton-Gore."
Elected Democrats here and elsewhere in the South, in sharp contrast to recent presidential elections when they were often nowhere to be found when the national ticket came to town, have been eager to embrace Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore.
"It tells me that Clinton might carry Georgia," said Pierre Howard, the state's lieutenant governor, who was on hand for the kickoff of the bus tour. "The assumption might have been a year ago that the Democrats could have written the state off."
Instead, because of the deteriorating economy in this state, Georgia has become the principal battleground state in the Deep South. Mr. Bush has campaigned here twice since the Republican convention last month, and Mr. Quayle made a bus trip of his own three weeks ago through some of the same areas Mr. Clinton hit yesterday.
THE TV CAMPAIGN
"Guess," a 30-second ad for George Bush, started airing last night in selected states.
SCRIPT: To a background of bluegrass music, a narrator says: "To pay for his increased spending in Arkansas, Bill Clinton raised state taxes. And not just on the rich. He increased the sales tax by 33 percent. Imposed a mobile home tax. Increased the beer tax.
"He assessed a tourism tax. Created a cable TV tax. Supported a tax on groceries. And now, if elected president, Bill Clinton has promised to increase government spending $220 billion. Guess where he'll get the money?"
VISUALS: Fast-motion shots of Mr. Clinton standing at a podium, signing bills and smiling, with aides behind him applauding. These comical speeded-up images alternate with quick cutaways to an Arkansas highway sign, grocery store register, a mobile home and glass of beer, a motel and tourists with cameras, fuzzy footage of Mr. Clinton playing the sax, and a grocery checkout. The spot ends with the words, "Guess where he'll get the money?"
ANALYSIS: The Bush campaign calls this the "first humorous commercial of the campaign," attempting to soften the fact that this is its first directly negative ad. The fast-forward technique, along with the fiddle-playing and images of mobile homes and beer, gives an impression of the Democrat, and the state of Arkansas, as honky-tonk, hillbilly-like and unsophisticated.
The spot tries to raise fears about Mr. Clinton's propensity to raise taxes, based on his Arkansas record. It backs up Mr. Bush's description of his opponent this week as "Governor Taxes."
The contention that Mr. Clinton raised taxes "not just on the rich" -- as illustrated by the allusions to mobile homes, beer and groceries -- is accurate. Many of the tax increases Mr. Clinton initiated apply to items that are often purchased by working families and the poor. He also has relied on corporate tax cuts to attract industry.
It is also true that during his tenure he increased general sales tax from 3 percent to 4.5 percent (actually a total increase of 50 percent, not 33 percent).
But what is unstated is that the governor did so only after failing to get through the state legislature an increase in state income tax, a more progressive tax, and that the sales tax increases were imposed to finance improvements in the public school system.
What's also unstated is that while Mr. Clinton increased the beer tax, so, too, did Mr. Bush under the 1990 budget summit agreement he signed.
Mr. Clinton did not necessarily "support" a tax on groceries as much as he failed to eliminate one that's been in place in Arkansas since 1935. In pushing his education package in 1983, he made a deal to eliminate the food tax for poor people, but then abandoned the deal in final negotiations.
The ad suggests Mr. Clinton would raise taxes to pay for the $220 billion in government spending he's proposed. Mr. Clinton has proposed paying for this $220 billion in "investments" through a combination of spending cuts -- such as defense cuts -- and assorted taxes such as an increase on single people making more than $150,000 and families making more than $200,000.