MINNEAPOLIS -- The rain drizzled steadily on Allard Peck's dairy farm in Chippewa Falls, Wis., and on Bill Clinton and Al Gore yesterday afternoon, but nobody seemed to mind. Several hundred hearty voters and their children stood in the open and applauded as the two Democrats paused in their traveling road show to preach their message of change.
On a day of unfriendly skies that kept crowds down somewhat but didn't seem to dampen their enthusiasm or that of the candidates, the Democratic team rolled through rural Wisconsin for a windup in Minneapolis. A rally there that drew an estimated 15,000 people concluded three marathon days up the Mississippi Valley, starting early in the morning and finishing up the first two nights in the wee hours.
Each day the campaign by bus fell far behind schedule as a result of repeated "spontaneous" stops at highway crossroads and truck stops where a hundred or more citizens showed up. While the stops were not formally scheduled, word was put out to local Democratic officials that the caravan would pause if there were sufficient folks on hand to warrant it. These local party leaders then passed the word to local radio and television stations.
The highway crowds were fairly impressive, but the real eye-opener (or closer, considering the hour) was the arrival of the motorcade at the Days Inn in LaCrosse, Wis., after 2 a.m. yesterday. Parents held their sleepy kids aloft to see the candidates, shake their outstretched hands or exchange high-fives.
Because of the late hour ending a day that began 18 hours earlier, the two Democrats did not give speeches, but as they walked along the rope line, Mr. Gore led the crowd in his now-familiar exchange with the crowd about President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle: "What time is it?" "It's time for them to go!" Weary reporters, longing for bed, gave their version: "It's VTC time for US to go!"
Neither Mr. Clinton nor Mr. Gore said much over the three days that they had not said on their first bus tour after the Democratic National Convention in New York last month, but the crowds didn't seem to care.
"Our opponents are going to say Clinton and Gore are just rookies," Mr. Clinton told a crowd of several thousand at a park on the banks of the Mississippi in the LaCrosse area yesterday morning. "Let's vote our hopes and not our fears."
Americans, he said, "have never been afraid to change" when things have gone bad, and as a country "we are forever young."
The youth of the traveling pair -- Mr. Clinton will be 46 later this month and Mr. Gore is 44 -- appears to be a major ingredient in the enthusiasm of the very large crowds the two have attracted for a time, between the two party conventions, that is traditionally low key in a campaign year. Comparisons with John F. Kennedy often are heard from older individuals in the crowds, though Mr. Clinton did not make the comparison himself over this latest trip.
Such presidential campaign events were commonplace in the days before television but usually not until after Labor Day, when campaigning intensified and voter interest along with it. The most notable exception was the primary campaign of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the spring of 1968, when voters not only showed up on highways to watch his motorcade go by but actually lined them from one town to another, wildly cheering.
The crowds greeting Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore have demonstrated a more controlled enthusiasm, but comments often have been heard that this was a chance to see in the flesh, and to let the young kids see, a man who might be president.
At a stop on the highway called Beaches Corner north of LaCrosse, more than a hundred people stood in the rain for an hour or more at midday yesterday to catch a glimpse of the pair. Carol Rindahl and her husband, Mervin, holding umbrellas over their grandchildren, "just came to see the new candidate" who, she said, might just get elected.
Mr. Gore on this trip pointed to the crowds, and the late hours when they have waited for the motorcade, as evidence that "something is happening" in the country, and that voters are regaining lost hope in the political process after years of apathy and disillusionment.
Campaign crowds are always undependable yardsticks of an election's outcome. They more often measure curiosity or intensity of feeling, even for a candidate who might turn out to be a landslide loser, as in the case of Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater against President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
But at this early stage of the general election campaign, the Democratic team appears to have reason to draw encouragement from the impressive turnouts at all hours along the many highways and byways of these bus tours through small-town Middle America.