BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Less than two weeks before Election Day, President Clinton is laying down footprints on turf rarely visited by a Democrat this late in a presidential campaign.
"Hello, Alabama!" Clinton gushed to an overflow college campus crowd. "I promised I would come to Alabama and ask the people of Alabama to support our efforts to build a bridge to the 21st century. It is such a beautiful day, and the crowd is so large, maybe Alabama is going to come along with me on that bridge."
It would be quite an upset if it happened. In the past three decades, conservative Alabama went twice for Ronald Reagan, twice for George Bush and once each for Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and George Wallace. But with the polls showing Clinton almost even with Bob Dole here, the president came to Alabama for the first time in his presidency.
Publicly, White House aides said they think Alabama might be winnable for the president. If so, Nov. 5 promises to be a long night at Dole headquarters: Even Republican Party officials say that if Alabama falls -- or is close -- Dole figures to win 10 states or fewer.
Privately, Clinton campaign officials concede the odds are still against them in Alabama, but they have their reasons for poaching in Dixie and other Republican strongholds:
In the case of Alabama, Clinton was buttonholed at the White House recently by retiring Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin, who ,, wrested a promise out of the president that he would come to the state if the polls narrowed in the Senate race where a Republican is leading the Democratic challenger. "They have tightened -- a bit, anyway -- and Heflin called in his chit," said one White House official. "We didn't want him to go, but he insisted on it."
Clinton and his aides clearly are enjoying tying Dole in knots by making him campaign in areas a Republican ought to have locked up by now -- at least in a close election. Last month, Clinton insisted on detouring to South Dakota, a state so Republican that 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern couldn't carry it -- even though it was his home state.
Next week, Clinton is heading to Arizona for the third time since the convention. Arizona has a tradition even more Republican than South Dakota's: It hasn't gone for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1948, the longest streak in the nation.
Yesterday, after leaving Alabama -- just as Dole was beginning to speak about 90 miles south in Montgomery -- Clinton flew to Louisiana, a Southern state he won in 1992 and which Dole needs now. Clinton arrived at the city of Lake Charles, the first sitting president to do so. From there, he flew to New Orleans.
Members of the Clinton/Gore team are so confident their lead will hold up in the states they really need -- California, the Northeast and the battleground of the Midwest -- that they are starting to look ahead, presumably to 2000.
"We want to continue in not only Alabama, but in Arizona, Florida, Virginia and other states," said White House political director Douglas Sosnik. "We want to make this more competitive for Democrats in the future of presidential politics."
Not that they're doing all that badly in the present.
Yesterday's crowd at Birmingham Southern College was probably 20,000 -- and enthusiastic. Another 2,000 crowded in front of a locked campus gate chanting, "Let us in! Let us in!"
One of those already in, 41-year-old Angela Hollander, stood at ,, the back of the crowd holding her sleeping 4-month-old son, listening to the president speak.
"My whole family's Republican, and I'm the only one voting for him," she said of Clinton. "It's causing me grief, but I think he's the best man for the job." Hollander also cited her trust in Vice President Al Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as reasons for her support.
Eighteen-year-old Megan Emily Green, a freshman at the school, says she's about to cast her first vote, and it, too, will be for Clinton.
"My dad's for Dole and my boyfriend is, like, head of the Young Republicans at his school," she said. "But my mom has constructed a collage to Bill Clinton on our refrigerator at home."
Asked why she sided with her mother, she replied, "I watched the debates and I thought Dole contradicted himself when he said he was in favor of education. Didn't he try to cut all that when he was in Congress?"
Here, as in Lake Charles, Sioux Falls, S.D., Phoenix and other conservative strongholds where Clinton has ventured, the rap used against him by those trying to overcome the gender and other gaps is that he is a liberal.
Conscious of this, the president's advisers prepped reporters at the outset of yesterday's two-day swing by saying he would emphasize conservative ideas he supports, such as school uniforms and anti-crime initiatives.
In truth, Clinton hardly deviated from his standard speech, which mentions those issues. But Alabama Democrats, introducing Clinton to the crowd, dealt on their own with the "L-word."
"You're from the South, so are we," senatorial candidate Roger Bedford told Clinton in his warm-up talk. "You understand that down here, Democrats are more conservative. Thank you for trying to move our party to the middle, the mainstream of where most of us are."
Chris Womack, 38, in the audience from Greenville, Ala., nodded approvingly. "Clinton's from Arkansas, man," he said. "He's not the kind of liberal they are trying to make him out to be."
Pub Date: 10/25/96