WILMINGTON, Ohio -- No wonder Bill Clinton's high school drama teacher called him a "natural." He can play so many roles.
During his bus tour through the heartland, he's been a straw-chewing friend of farmers, an expert on health care, a devoted churchgoer, an ally of factory workers and a student of trucking issues.
Switching from jeans to a suit, depending on the audience, has helped Mr. Clinton appeal successfully to different groups on his six-day, eight-state trip from New York to St. Louis.
A crowd estimated at 5,000 -- one of his largest this year -- cheered him Sunday night in Utica, Ohio, a farm town of 2,000 that went for George Bush in 1988.
Mr. Clinton, clad in blue jeans and an open-necked knit shirt, delivered his basic campaign stump speech. He attacked President Bush for catering to the interests of wealthy Americans while raising taxes on the middle class.
Yesterday, crowds exceeding 2,000 greeted him enthusiastically in Wilmington and Columbus, Ohio, which could bode well for Mr. Clinton's efforts to wrest the state from the Republicans. Mr. Bush clobbered Michael S. Dukakis, 55 percent to 44 percent, in 1988 here, and Democratic strategists regard Ohio as their weakest state in the industrial Midwest.
In Columbus, dressed in a suit coat and tie, Mr. Clinton addressed office workers on the subject of medical costs. He argued that unless the federal government can contain the explosion in health care spending, it will not have the money for improving education, increasing research and development, repairing roads and bridges, and a host of other needs.
"If this country does not reform health care costs and provide a basic package of health care to everyone, we cannot solve our other problems," he said.
Interviews with voters at several campaign stops and the latest ABC-Washington Post poll suggest that the Clinton message, aimed at the broad political center of America, is hitting the mark.
The ABC poll released last night showed Mr. Clinton with a commanding lead over Mr. Bush, with 58 percent of voters favoring the Democratic challenger compared with 30 percent for the president. The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 5, also found that Mr. Clinton has shrugged off the character questions that dogged him through the primaries -- at least for now.
Almost two of every three Americans think Mr. Clinton has the honesty and integrity to be president, compared with just more than half for Mr. Bush, the poll showed.
The poll numbers and the crowd response have boosted Mr. Clinton's confidence.
Participating in a live televised meeting in Louisville, Ky., last night, Mr. Clinton received a question from a surprising source: Vice President Dan Quayle.
Mr. Quayle, who taped the question at an earlier date, challenged Mr. Clinton to defend a proposed tax increase on the wealthy. "When we start talking about tax increases, everyone gets hurt," including people with lower incomes, the vice president said.
Some in the studio audience at WHAS-TV applauded, but Mr. Clinton drew a big laugh by mocking President Bush's promise never to raise taxes: "Read my lips."
"No responsible president would ever do what George Bush did and say 'read my lips,' " Mr. Clinton said. "You cannot possibly foresee all the circumstances that come before you."
Mr. Clinton has proposed increasing taxes on those making more than $200,000 a year and decreasing them on the middle class. "My tax policy is based on the fact that middle-class people's incomes went down and their taxes went up in the 1980s."
Many people along Mr. Clinton's winding, 1,000-mile bus route like his proposals for economic growth, expanding health care coverage or providing low-cost college and vocational training loans. Others support him because he wants to put welfare recipients to work, or because he's young and conveys the ability to bring about change.
Some just seem to like the fact that he's willing to come visit. Notified of his approach, they set out lawn chairs or simply stand, sometimes with welcoming signs. And when the bus caravan rolls by, carrying the candidates, their wives, staff and news media, people wave.
Mayor Clifford N. Eveland 3rd of Wilmington, a heavily Republican town of some 14,000, issued a proclamation welcoming Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore, noting that "seldom in our county's history have we had a visit from politicians of such national prominence."
In an interview, the local newspaper editor, Jay Carey of the Wilmington News Journal, said Mr. Clinton had "made a lot of inroads.
"But so did Dukakis after the convention as well," he added. "I just don't know if he has the staying power until November. Right now, he has made a big impact."
More than anything, what seems to be making people Clinton supporters, these days, is their disappointment with Mr. Bush.
Opal Martin, 52, a Democrat, voted for Mr. Bush in 1988 but won't do so this year. "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," she said, waiting for Mr. Clinton to speak outside Nationwide Insurance Co. in Columbus.
Of Mr. Clinton, she said, "I think he knows what's going on. And he's a young man. I think we need new blood."
In Wilmington, Uriah and Essie Parry waited outside the Clinton County courthouse to hear Mr. Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore.
Four years ago, they wouldn't have given the two candidates the time of day; Republicans, they voted for Mr. Bush and Dan Quayle.
But not this year.
"We're both senior citizens, and they're not helping us out very much," Mr. Parry, 75, said of the Bush administration. Referring to Mr. Clinton, he said, "We want something to happen, and we think he can make it happen."