BOSTON -- Today, after a send-off at historic Faneuil Hall, a bon voyage that is expected to be complete with a fiery speech from the first lady and the blessings of the Kennedy clan, the final leg of the "Health Security Express" starts rolling.
The "Express" is a caravan of buses, loaded with Democratic loyalists, union activists and proponents of "health care that's always there." Next stop: Albany, N.Y. Points south on the Northeast route include Jersey City, Philadelphia, Wilmington -- and Baltimore, where Health Secretary Donna E. Shalala is the scheduled headliner at a Tuesday evening rally on Lombard Street.
The destination is Washington, where buses from four similar caravans from across the country will converge. There, they will deliver loads of letters and telegrams to Congress, which is wrestling with a version of President Clinton's 1,345-page bill to revolutionize the way health insurance is provided in the United States.
The caravans have attracted hecklers as well as supporters. But a scouting trip along the Northeast route shows that even where there won't be big crowds, there is considerable interest in health care reform -- even among those who have reservations about the Clinton administration's plan.
"Everybody agrees we need a new system," says Garo Touroyan, a Boston taxi driver who likes what he knows of the Clinton plan. "So let's put one in and see if it fits. If it don't, we can put in a new one."
Not everyone, it has become clear this summer, is as sanguine about restructuring one-seventh of the nation's economy in a single piece of legislation. In Congress, opposition has stiffened around the the White House's insistence that the plan cover everyone and that employers foot much of the bill.
At a news conference yesterday, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas criticized Democrats for backing what he called "government-knows-best health care" and called for bipartisan talks on a scaled-back reform measure.
But the White House is ready for the challenge thrown down by the people it calls "guardians of gridlock." The Clinton White House has dusted out its magical trick of the 1992 campaign -- the bus trip.
Yesterday, the Clintons, joined by Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, met the Midwest leg of the caravan in Independence, Mo. Invoking the memory of local hero and former Democratic President Harry S. Truman, Mr. Clinton thanked the caravan riders and vowed to "use the presidency to fight to help ordinary Americans get a better life."
Mr. Gore, referring to protesters chanting in the distance, added defiantly: "They booed Harry Truman right here in Independence when he introduced health care. But we're going to win; just you watch."
As health care has heated up as an issue this summer, the caravans have sparked some spirited debates. Because of the distance involved, the Western leg was the first to leave -- and thus the first to garner attention. When it left Portland, Ore., 10 days ago, it headed for some of the most staunchly anti-government, anti-Washington places in the country.
In Idaho, the caravan riders were so spooked by protesters with "No Socialized Medicine" or "Heil Hillary" signs that they skipped their own rally and arrived early at a church not yet prepared to feed them dinner.
Presumably, the caravan heading to Baltimore will get a more supportive reception in the more liberal Northeast corridor.
But the caravan's organizers -- friendly labor unions -- are finding that, while it's easy to get a crowd for Mrs. Clinton or the president, it's not so easy to draw a crowd for 150 anonymous health care reformers passing through on Interstate 95.
Union officials said the "box lunch" stop at Wilmington, Del., wasn't fully planned as late as yesterday -- and organizers were having trouble getting even local Democratic officeholders to return from holidays at the Delaware shore to meet the buses.
That wasn't true in Jersey City, N.J., where Mr. Clinton will meet the caravan tomorrow, or in Boston, where organizers have doled out invitations like precious jewels to selected Democratic loyalists.
"There's a great deal of pressure for tickets to this," Alex MacPhail, an official with the Service Employees International Union, said of the Boston rally. "It's the event of the weekend."
Valarie Branchi, a waitress at Boston's famed Union Oyster House, said she'd like to attend, but has to work. Asked if she supports the plan, she answered: "Yes, why not? Everybody should have socialized medicine. Europe has it. My mother had it in the 1940s."
In Philadelphia, Albert Gotto, a 43-year-old bartender, pronounces himself "still a little skeptical" but agrees that middle-class workers need health security.
Mr. Gotto, who is covered under the health insurance plan of his wife, who works at a local hospital, added: "What would it do to existing programs? What will the choices be? Recently, I had to get a series of MRI tests. Would it have covered that? And, if so, how will they keep costs down for the kind of people who run to the doctor every time they have a little ache?"
Such concerns demonstrate that, among ordinary citizens, the debate over health care is not as partisan and doesn't break down along such tidy lines as it does in Washington.
Mr. Gotto's boss is Judith A. Wicks, owner of the White Dog Cafe, a well-known restaurant and bar near the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Wicks, a staunch supporter of the Clinton health plan, is feeding about 50 of the bus riders Tuesday morning.
She also plans to appear at a news conference with Erskine Bowles, head of the Small Business Administration.
Ms. Wicks, who employs about 90 people at her restaurant, offers health insurance to 15 of the more senior employees, at a cost of about $30,000 a year. She says she'd like to cover everyone but can't swing the $140,000 that would cost, even with an employee contribution of 20 percent.
By her calculations, under the Clinton health care plan, she would have to pay $30,000 more than she does now -- but would have the satisfaction of knowing that all her employees would be covered.
"I don't call that a burden," she says. "I call it a bargain."
Ms. Wicks thinks this would lessen turnover, the acknowledged No. 1 problem in the restaurant business, and wouldn't put her at much of a competitive disadvantage because all restaurants and carryouts would have to do the same thing. She knows she's bucking the small-business establishment but thinks there are bigger issues involved.
"I'm worried about this country if we can't do something that the majority of people want," she said. "It's getting harder and harder in this country to change the status quo."
A third White Dog staff member, Amy McCracken, 24, could be a reluctant poster child for the need for health care reform -- and she knows it.
She is a 1992 Penn graduate, with a degree in art history.
Full-time jobs in that field are about as scarce as winning lottery tickets, so she's waitressing part time while figuring out what to do next.
Her tight budget makes the $140-a-month health insurance premium seem a little steep.
So what does she do?
"I'm off my father's health plan, so for the last three or four years -- no doctor," she says. "It's a terrible bet to have to make, but I'm making it."
Today, Mrs. Clinton and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts will talk about this issue. And, like the Independence event yesterday, the location is heavy with symbolism.
Faneuil Hall was the gathering place for anti-British rallies in the mid-1700s that led to the American Revolution.
In the 1830s and 1840s, it was the favorite site for anti-slavery rallies, where speakers such as Frederick Douglass stoked the fires of the Abolitionist movement.
John Manson, a National Park Service historian, says that the historic precedent Mrs. Clinton might like to cite is the 1874 labor union rally at Faneuil Hall that inaugurated the push for standardization of the 40-hour workweek.
Of course, he muses, if one is too far ahead of the curve -- even in Boston -- the crowd can get ugly.
It was here, in the 1830s, that abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was too far in front of public opinion and had to be rescued from an angry mob by a sheriff.
Security arrangements today were designed to protect Mrs. Clinton from being within earshot of hecklers, let alone a lynch mob.
But Mrs. Clinton did not sound like someone afraid of the rough-and-tumble of political discourse.
"All this shouting back and forth," Mrs. Clinton said yesterday, referring to the Missouri protesters, "goes on any time you have a great debate."