PADUCAH, Ky. -- The Clintons and the Gores, re-creating the sights, sounds, fumes -- and, they hope, the luck -- of their 1992 campaign, boarded buses yesterday for a post-convention tour of the heartland.
"What a crowd -- this is amazing!" Vice President Al Gore said at the first stop in southeast Missouri. "Thank you, Cape Girardeau!"
President Clinton told the huge, enthusiastic crowd that last time he was in town, "as a private citizen" he stopped to get a Coke, and no one noticed him. "It's pretty nice to come and see 30,000 of our best friends."
Continuing the theme started on the president's 500-mile train trip and in his Thursday night acceptance speech, Clinton and Gore stressed the challenges awaiting Americans in the 21st century -- insisting that they, not the Republican ticket of Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, were the men for the job.
With Clinton tired and hoarse, the star of the day was Gore. Lauding Dole at each stop as a "good and decent man" who has earned America's respect for his war wounds and his lifetime of public service, Gore nevertheless delivered a rousing and highly partisan speech criticizing Dole's ideas.
He added, "In San Diego, he offered himself as a bridge to the past. Bill Clinton and I offer ourselves as a bridge to the future."
If that's the pitch, the mode of transportation was incongruous. After spending almost a week on a railroad, the preferred people movers of the 19th century, the presidential party moved up to the 20th century -- the early 20th century -- in a 15-bus caravan leased to the campaign by Executive Coaches.
"I miss our plane," one White House official said wistfully in the 90-degree heat at the first stop.
By and large, though, the presidential party was pumped up yesterday, not only by the cheering crowds that lined the motorcade route or waited in towns such as Cape Girardeau; Cairo, Ill.; and Paducah, Ky., but by the positive reaction to Clinton's speech and the Chicago convention as a whole.
Aides said the results of their polls closely track those done by various news organizations, which showed the Democrats beginning to get the same kind of "bounce" out of their convention that the Republicans got from San Diego.
ABC's polling organization, which just two weeks ago showed Clinton's lead shrinking to two percentage points, had that lead back up to 20 points yesterday.
A Newsweek poll had the lead at 15 points; White House political director Douglas Sosnik said the Clinton-Gore campaign's polls showed it in that range -- and that was before the president's speech.
It was quite a contrast to 24 hours before, when the Clintons and Gores were informed that top presidential strategist Dick Morris had abruptly resigned hours before Clinton's speech.
Morris' departure, after a tabloid report that he had let a prostitute he hired eavesdrop on presidential phone conversations, caused an unwanted crisis on the last day of the convention. But the campaign moved to put the issue swiftly behind.
When the Clintons and Gores were asked a question about Morris, Gore simply said, "I think it's time to get on the bus."
White House press secretary Mike McCurry made a point of telling reporters that Clinton had not turned his back on his longtime adviser. Clinton, Gore and the first lady all phoned Morris Thursday afternoon at his home in Connecticut "just to see how he was doing," McCurry said.
If the scandal disturbed voters, it wasn't evident along the route.
Asked about Morris' troubles in Cape Girardeau, Bill Heckert, owner of an Illinois office equipment company, replied, "That's probably his problem and nobody else's. He's got a big problem at home, I'm sure."
Added retiree Frank Lyon, who had driven 180 miles from his home in Raleigh, Mo., "It's too bad that he had this problem. Probably, he'd been working too hard and his chemistry got out of balance on him."
But if inside political gossip wasn't a big issue in the heartland, there were reminders that Clinton was elected with less than 50 percent of the vote in 1992 -- and that whatever the polls show, there are still many Americans with deep disagreements with his record and the Democratic Party.
As the trip began in Missouri, the motorcade was met by three huge billboards with messages in opposition to abortion and Clinton's support of abortion rights.
Quoting from Hillary Clinton's Tuesday night convention speech, in which she said her husband believed in "family values," one of the billboards took him to task for his veto of a measure that would have banned late-term abortions.
"Abortion stops a beating heart 4,400 times a day," read a second billboard.
Along the route in Missouri there was also a liberal sprinkling of the distinct blue Dole-Kemp signs. And in Paducah, a rally of those promoting rights for cigarette smokers protested the president's visit.
The biggest controversy on the president's trip may be the frightful number of people collapsing in the heat at each event. The record was Ashland, Ky., last Sunday on the first day of the train trip, when paramedics hauled 50 people out of the crowd, most on stretchers.
Campaign aides squirm when asked about this issue, perhaps because Clinton's tardiness is contributing to the problem. Increasingly, Clinton is prefacing his speeches with warnings to the crowd to drink water and instructions to them about where the paramedics are.
At Cape Girardeau yesterday, dozens of people were treated for heat exhaustion and many children were taken sick in the heat.
Pub Date: 8/31/96