Clinton finds welcome in conservative Ga. Nunn lauds president; Cleland is lukewarm; CAMPAIGN 1996


ATLANTA -- President Clinton marched into Georgia yesterday, his confident campaign trolling for votes within hailing distance of Newt Gingrich's district.

At two events, here and in Macon, Clinton proposed expanding college work-study programs in order to tutor third-graders in reading. Before the Democratic convention, Clinton called for a volunteer force 1 million strong to target young children. Yesterday, he said, 10 percent of that force could be college students.

"I want you to support that," he told a downtown Atlanta crowd at lunchtime. "Forty percent of the 8-year-olds in America today still cannot read a book on their own. All these children I want to go to college, all these children we want to fool with computers, if they can't read, they can't succeed."

Audiences here expressed hostility for Gingrich in interviews and chuckled as Mayor Bill Campbell compared Bob Dole to "Darth Vader," but some of the most intriguing comments came from Georgia Democrats who have not always been comfortable with the president.

Retiring Sen. Sam Nunn, who backed Clinton into a corner three years ago on gays in the military, lauded the president yesterday as a man who had helped make Georgians safe from nuclear war.

Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, who passionately urged Clinton to veto a welfare bill the president ended up signing, praised him yesterday as a man sensitive to the need for continued racial healing in America.

Senate candidate Max Cleland showed up. Four years ago, he gave a thumbs-up sign at a rally for another Democratic presidential hopeful when the warm-up speaker needled then-candidate Clinton by saying the United States "needs a commander-in-chief, not a commander-in-chicken."

Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who lost two legs and an arm to a grenade explosion, spoke before the president arrived. Cleland has often expressed disdain for Clinton's avoidance of military service, and when asked by an Atlanta television reporter if he would ask Georgians to vote for Clinton, he replied, "I'd ask 'em to vote for me."

In his own speech, Clinton employed flowery language while speaking of Cleland's sacrifice and his years of public service.

"Let me tell you Max Cleland has kept on giving for a lifetime, with a smile on his face and a song in his heart, always reaching out his hand to other people," said Clinton.

When Clinton mentioned Cleland's "sacrifice," a heckler shouted out from the crowd, "What would you know about it, draft dodger?"

Clinton bristled and launched an attack against Republicans, saying, "The other side, their idea of sacrifice is to take Head Start away from 5-year-olds, college loans away from students, to take our environment away from all our people, and to weaken our future economy for short-term promises. I think Max Cleland's idea of service to America is the right one. "

The audience cheered, but Cleland didn't look impressed. As all the speakers on stage gathered around Clinton, Cleland kept his wheelchair some distance away. Cleland also did not attend a later Clinton rally in Macon.

Tim Phillips, Cleland's campaign director, explained later that the schedule put out by the Clinton campaign was mistaken -- that Cleland always planned on showing up at only one of the two Georgia rallies -- but he did not attempt to hide Cleland's differences with the president.

"Look, they're not ideological soul mates," said Phillips. "But it's clear that Bill Clinton is going to be re-elected, and Max is going to win, so it's important to the people of Georgia that they have a cordial relationship."

Although Georgia is considered a conservative state, it went for Clinton in 1992 and for native son Jimmy Carter twice, leading the Clinton team to conclude that the state is receptive to a Southern Democrat, provided he's not perceived as too liberal.

Yesterday, to make that point, Clinton stressed crime and education initiatives here. In Macon, he received the endorsement of a local police group at a rally where local Democrats festooned the town square with placards crediting the president for making the city's streets "safe."

Regarding using work study to tutor kids, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling explained that this was part of the president's summertime initiative to improve the reading skills of the nation's 8-year-olds. Perhaps because he was in flag-waving Georgia, Sperling used martial language to describe this most peaceful of pursuits.

"This is very smart and very sound way for us to almost instantaneously create a battalion of 100,000 college students who could be the front lines of that tutor corps," he said.

Pub Date: 10/26/96

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