Clinton campaign rolls through the heartland

August 07, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

DAVENPORT, Iowa -- They aren't quite Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, these two youngish Democrats who swung through Mark Twain's boyhood hometown of Hannibal, Mo., the other day on the second installment of their rolling presidential campaign through the heartland of Mr. Twain's small-town America.

But Bill Clinton of Hope, Ark., who will be 46 next week, and 44-year-old Al Gore of Carthage, Tenn., do a fair imitation of country boys who haven't forgotten their roots. And the imitation appears to be playing extremely well before the large crowds that turn out for them on Main Streets and at truck stops along Samuel Clemens' Mississippi.

There no doubt is a bit of country in both members of the Democratic ticket, and they can talk country with ease.

Mr. Clinton refers to his "momma" and launches into exclamations by saying, "Well, shoot, folks." He was thanking the people of Hannibal for turning out for "Tipper and Al and Hillary and I" when he stopped and corrected himself to say "and me." He didn't want to make a grammar mistake "in Mark Twain's hometown," he said to a laughing, appreciative audience.

Later, speaking along the banks of the Mississippi at Burlington, Iowa, Mr. Clinton told the uncommonly large crowd that "I've grown up loving the land that borders this river" and then talked affectionately about "this old river" and "all the troubles this river has seen."

As Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore do their latter-day Tom and Huck, there is more than a smidgen of the city slicker in each of them. While running hard against Washington, Mr. Clinton after nearly 12 years as a governor dealing with the feds knows his way around the corridors of power.

And Mr. Gore, as the son of a U.S. senator and one who spent much of his boyhood and adolescence living and going to school in Washington, is far from being a hayseed himself -- though Mr. Clinton loves to tell crowds that "Al still lives on a farm." That is, when he's not busy in the Senate, which is usually most of the time.

But on this second bus tour together that ends in Minneapolis today, they have managed to shed their acquired urbanity as easily as they stripped off their jackets after the Hannibal stop and spoke thereafter in shirtsleeves. They and their wives give the impression of two young couples on a summer vacation without the kids, having the time of their lives.

Mr. Clinton especially seems tickled at the performance of the man he chose as his running mate. He throws his head back, laughing and applauding as Mr. Gore warms up each crowd with a harangue against the Republican team with all the fire-and-brimstone of a preacher on Sunday morning.

The vice-presidential nominee swings into a routine that the crowds have come to anticipate the way they do a late-night television host's trademark lines. "It's time for Bush and Quayle to go!" he shouts, then asks: "What time is it?" The crowd chants back: "Time for them to go!" Mr. Gore repeats: "What time is it?" and so on, as Bill and Hillary and Tipper joyfully chime in.

At nearly every stop, Mr. Clinton steps up and immediately brags on his selection of a running mate, comparing Mr. Gore with the president's 1988 choice of Dan Quayle. And at this early stage of the general election campaign, he looks on with seeming wonder at the young Tennessean who, with his lively stump performance, repeatedly rebuffs his own reputation for ponderous stuffed-shirtism acquired as a failed presidential candidate in 1988.

As they campaign side by side up the Mississippi Valley, the new Democratic partners take pains to be mutually deferential. Before voter forums, Mr. Gore listens attentively as the head of the ticket fields questions, never disagreeing but sometimes expanding on or even clarifying Mr. Clinton's responses.

Some audiences react more enthusiastically to Mr. Gore as he lets himself go rhetorically or snaps off sharp ad libs. At one forum in Davenport, after Mr. Clinton had given a sober response to a question on what to do about Saddam Hussein, Mr. Gore took the microphone and recalled how Mr. Bush in a recent speech had told the voters how important it was to have an experienced voice on the end of the line when a crisis call came into the White House in the middle of the night.

When the president's wealthy supporters phone, he said, Mr. Bush answers at once, but "when the average American family calls up" to tell him how bad things are, "they're getting a busy signal, they're getting a disconnect." Mr. Clinton stood there with a slight grin that suggested he was wishing he'd have said that.

Mr. Gore also refers often to "the Clinton-Gore team" rather than just the ticket's standard-bearer, but it is in keeping with Mr. Clinton's own frequent reference to what "Al and I" plan to do when they get to the White House.

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