TAMPA, Fla. -- Everywhere he goes on the final, frenetic 17-state 1996 campaign swing, Bill Clinton wistfully tells his audiences, "I'm on the verge of finishing my last campaign."
He quickly adds a light caveat -- "Unless I run for the school board someday."
But audiences rarely laugh at this whimsical prediction, perhaps because it seems too revealing. It has begun to dawn on everyone who sees him -- and even, finally, on this born campaigner himself -- that today might be the last time that Bill Clinton asks other Americans to vote for him.
"He says this is the last time, but I don't think it's really hit him yet," longtime Arkansas aide Bruce Lindsey said two nights ago at a chilly outdoor rally along the Mississippi River. "Look at him."
Yesterday, when an admirer in Florida invited him for a game of golf. Clinton said he needed a rain check, adding: "We've got a lot of miles to go." He wasn't kidding.
Despite a seemingly safe lead over Bob Dole, the president arose just after dawn, gave a sermon-like talk on race relations at an African-American church here, worked a rope line at the Tampa airport and delivered his standard stump speech in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Newark, N.J., before heading up to New England.
After yesterday's full day, Clinton was facing an even longer one today. He is to go to Cleveland, Ohio; Lexington, Ky.; and Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before arriving -- long after midnight -- in Little Rock, Ark., where he will vote tomorrow and await election returns.
In a low-key, 45-minute exchange with reporters aboard Air Force One on the way north, Clinton said that he had personally picked the schedule himself. The primary consideration, he said, were close Senate races in New Jersey, Iowa and South Dakota where he thought his appearance could boost the chances of various Democratic candidates.
He added, though, that he chose to spend the night in New Hampshire last night for purely sentimental reasons. Clinton credits his second-place finish there in 1992 for putting allegations of infidelity and draft-dodging behind him. It was also the first place he'd stood for election outside Arkansas and the first time he'd asked Americans to go to the polls and vote for Bill Clinton for president.
Clinton's eyes welled with tears and he became emotional as he reminisced about one of the most searing experiences of his presidency, the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The president's nostalgia has been evident at other times, this week, too. In Nevada, his voice grew husky while recalling for his audience how his mother, who died last year of cancer, used to trek to the state's casinos where she was a pampered low-roller.
"Every time I come here to Las Vegas, I think of my wonderful mother who loved this community so much," he said. "and I wish she were here with me still for this election."
In Denver, while gently teasing Colorado Gov. Roy Romer for breaking his leg in the youthful pursuit of riding a motorcycle, Clinton, who turned 50 this year, referred to himself and his old friend from his days in the National Governors Association as "aging warriors."
Everywhere he has gone this week in his self-described "last campaign," Clinton has been presented with tangible reminders of human mortality -- and of a life spent in the pursuit of seeking votes.
Sometimes they come in the form of sentimental gifts from old friends in politics.
In Little Rock, David Leopoulos, Clinton's ally from their student government days at Hot Springs High, handed the president a box of acorns. "We used to throw acorns at cars when we were kids," Leopoulos explained.
In San Antonio, Democrats Clinton has known since 1972 slipped him some his favored mango ice cream to take on Air Force One. "My heart is full of gratitude today," he said.
Yesterday, in Florida, a Democrat named Robert Haigh presented Clinton with a volleyball as a way of remembering his beach volleyball game with the president-elect in Santa Barbara in 1992.
But along the way, Clinton has been presented with a lot more than inexpensive mementos.
In Ypsilanti, Mich., at the beginning of his final, six-day trip, Clinton was dutifully shaking hands along the rope line when he saw someone he knew. A tender reunion followed. The president's friend was 8-year-old Stephanie Smith, whose long lashes and tiny earrings made her look elegant, but whose unnaturally pale skin revealed a serious illness.
Stephanie wore an oversized "Vote Clinton" sweat shirt that didn't quite hide her amputated leg. Her father, Paul Smith, ex- plained later that she has a "unique immune system disorder" that has baffled her doctors. Clinton met the little girl when she visited the White House under the auspices of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and he has stayed in touch with her ever since.
Clinton took her from her father's arms and held her, gently caressing a head left bald from chemotherapy. "Are you keeping your spirits up?" he asked her.
Stephanie's mother Debbie said Clinton had written her daughter several times since meeting her. "It makes her feel, 'I'm special,'" she said. "There's no way you can thank someone for that."
But it's no secret that Clinton gets something in return.
"He's like a battery-powered being who plugs into other people and re-charges," says campaign aide Joe Lockhart. "But he re-charges the people, too. I don't know exactly how he does it, but he get across to people that he genuinely cares about their lives."
It does seem that Clinton's connection to people is physical. In El Paso, thousands of people streamed out of an airport rally in the middle of Clinton's speech -- not an uncommon occurrence -- but when he worked the rope line, the president reached so deep into the crowd to touch the children perched on their parents' shoulders that he got tangled up in three ropes.
He is routinely kissed by women, has his hair mussed by men and, when he takes babies and coos to them, sometimes looks as though he won't give them back. And he listens to their stories, frequently weaving the moral of the tale -- as he sees it -- into his speech at the next stop. In El Paso, Alma Godinez, grabbed the president's hands and told him her medical story. "He almost cried when I told him because of Medicaid I was walking," she said.
An hour later, in New Mexico, Clinton had incorporated it into his speech.
The question for those who know him best is how Bill Clinton will ever walk away from all this. Aides say Clinton is keenly aware that after being president, John Quincy Adams served 35 years in the House. He knows also that in two years, history suggests congressional Democrats will need all the help on the stump they can get, that if Al Gore runs for president in four years, Clinton might prove a needed asset on the campaign trail, and that Hillary Clinton once harbored distinct political ambitions of her own. One Clinton friend said the president harbors the notion that Chelsea might do what James Roosevelt could not.
"Boy, I feel sorry for Chelsea if she ever runs," said Lindsey with a laugh. "He'll be her campaign manager, her scheduler and want to tape the [television] spots "
Lockhart agrees Clinton will have trouble staying away.
"It's the last campaign where he goes out as the candidate, but it's not the last time he'll go out and interact with the voters."
White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, who is leaving the administration himself and contemplating a run for California governor, isn't so sure Clinton won't run for office again someday.
"And I can see if he was living in a state with a Republican senator and the local Democrats came to him and told him he was the best chance to recapture it," Panetta said, his voice trailing into a chuckle. "I can't see him sitting on his hind end in a rocking chair. He gets too much out of this."
A little while later, Clinton was talking to another crowd, working another rope line. "Wow," he said in response to his enthusiastic reception in Union Township, N.J. "Thank you for coming out, standing in the cold, making me feel so warm."
Pub Date: 11/04/96