LITTLE ROCK -- Ending a remarkably successful heartland tour, Bill Clinton returned home yesterday with the sound of cheers in his ears but also with the knowledge that more difficult days lie ahead.
The Arkansas governor flew here after 20,000 people, the biggest crowd Mr. Clinton has drawn all year and the largest of the eight-state bus tour that he and running mate Al Gore began Friday in New York, turned out in St. Louis yesterday for a rally that capped the six-day trip.
The Democratic nominees rewarded the crowd with the same spirited call for change that drew cheers in places like York, Pa., Utica, Ohio, and Vandalia, Ill.
"There's nothing wrong with America other than we're underorganized, undereducated and underled," Mr. Clinton thundered. "And we're going to change that in November if you elect us."
But, as he predicted often during the bus trip, Republicans have begun stepping up their attacks on him as they prepared for what they hope will be a poll-boosting convention next month in Houston.
He needed to look no further for evidence of this yesterday than his own St. Louis hotel, where Clayton Yeutter, a White House adviser to President Bush and former Republican national chairman, tried to undercut the rally by holding a news conference in which he faulted, among several things, Mr. Clinton's lack of foreign policy experience.
At the rally in downtown St. Louis, Mr. Clinton blasted the Bush administration for placing the United States "in the grip of a failed idea" that has lowered taxes on the wealthy and resulted in "more decline, more inequality."
Rebutting Mr. Bush's accusation that his economic plan is "smoke and mirrors," Mr. Clinton declared: "Our plan says no smoke and mirrors. We're going to pay for it by taking every dollar by which defense is reduced and reinvest here in America to put . . . people back to work."
To skeptics who ask, "How do I know you're serious?" Mr. Clinton said, "Look at the first decision George Bush made and the first decision I made: Al Gore vs. Dan Quayle."
The crowd cheered, as crowds did whenever Mr. Gore was introduced and spoke. Mr. Gore has proved to be not only a popular choice for running mate but also an effective complement to Mr. Clinton.
All through the tour, they have presented themselves as partners. Mr. Clinton shared the stage with him at each stop and deferred to him on questions related to Mr. Gore's expertise, particularly on the environment.
"I wanted to put Al Gore on my team because he knows more than I do about some things, not because he'll make me look good every day," Mr. Clinton said in St. Louis.
They have looked good together, along with their wives, Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore. They work at conveying intimacy and friendship, though they didn't know each other well and in the past viewed each other as rivals for the presidency.
Campaign officials play up the candidates' relationship. When reporters asked Mr. Gore's spokeswoman, Marla Romash, what the two men talked about during the long daily bus rides, she cast them as comfortable pals.
"They talk about their kids, where they have just been," she said.
Today, Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton will go their separate ways for a while. Mr. Clinton is scheduled to fly to Houston, then the West Coast, where the Democrats must do well in the fall. Mr. Gore will campaign in Alabama.
But campaign officials have talked about the possibility of doing another bus tour, or perhaps a trip by train.
Clinton aides were delighted with the high-profile and highly positive news coverage -- the bus tour led the evening newscasts of one or more TV networks on each of the first four nights -- as well as the receptions the candidates received. The pictures broadcast to a national TV audience conveyed the candidates' energy, youth and concern for everyday Americans.
The campaign chose small towns and small cities, where the audiences were almost all white and the settings were pure Americana.
In Vandalia, Ill., Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore spoke Tuesday night in front of the flood-lit former state Capitol. A crowd estimated at 10,000 crowded the small downtown, where people still go to the old Liberty movie theater and buy medicine in Cuppy's Pharmacy.
A guitar-playing singer warmed up the gathering by singing, again and again: "Clinton and Gore, a change for me and you, Clinton and Gore in 1992." When the bus caravan finally arrived, late, a 5-year-old girl, Little Miss Fayette County Fair, greeted them with flowers.
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore responded with rousing speeches, well-received. And when they finished, people in the crowd lit white candles and the candidates did the same, while the singer led the crowd in "God Bless America."
Even then it wasn't over. People politely formed lines along the path the candidates would walk to their buses, hoping to take their pictures, maybe shake their hands.