PARMA, Ohio -- Bill Clinton's latest bus-stop campaign tour pulled right up to the front door of white middle-class America yesterday, commandeering the sidewalks and streets in this suburb of Cleveland where pirogi are king.
Stepping off the lead bus in an eight-bus caravan in front of Parma Pierogies, Clinton and his vice-presidential running mate, Sen. Al Gore, along with their wives, immediately threw their hands into a crowd that clogged the sidewalks along Ridge Road, in front of Parma Beauty Shop, Parma Pets, Parma Golf Shop, a store called Incredible Inflatables and Ciotta Chiropractic Center.
"Howya' doin'?" a man asks Clinton.
"I'm hot," the Democratic presidential candidate says.
"Take off your tie, then."
And make yourself at home and have a pirog, that East European ravioli that sticks to the ribs and weighs heavily in the stomach.
The Clinton-Gore caravan, the third such bus sortie and a campaign venture quickly assuming the stature of political folklore, paraded through here yesterday after stepping off in Cleveland Friday.
Along the way, both the candidates continued to shoot back at criticism heaped on the Democratic ticket during the Republican National Convention. They raked President Bush for breaking his pledge of no new taxes four years ago and scored him for economic policies that favored the wealthy while reducing the standard of living of millions of working-class Americans.
"Let me tell you what this election is about. . . . We propose to put Americans back to work," Clinton says to a crowd of thousands at a rally here.
At every stop, including a speech to senior citizens in a public housing project, Clinton repeated promises to create jobs and ,, incentives for business. He promised reform of welfare policies and additional funding for education and law enforcement. And he got roars when he advocated expansion of health care and a plan to offer college scholarships to students who pledge to pay off their debt in public service.
The Lake Erie bus tour, bearing the theme of "On the Road to Change America" and bound for a finish today in Buffalo, N.Y., landed in this heavily Democratic, working-class suburb of 93,000 after a day on the streets of Cleveland.
Friday night, on the way to an East Cleveland church, the buses passed block after block of old brick factories and residential neighborhoods, past wooden homes with rickety, two-story porches, past vacant lots, past kids in oversized T-shirts waving both hands, past old women waving from lawn chairs, past an old man in a cockeyed Cleveland Indians cap pumping his fist in the air.
There was a thick crowd waiting along the iron police barrier on Quincy Avenue in front of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. The church was already full, and it was already rocking with gospel music. And it was already hot.
Not hot. Steam. Christian sauna. It was body heat to the nth degree, down in the sanctuary -- sizzling in 20 floodlights for 10 TV cameras -- and up in the balcony. Men and women sucked the air out of the room. All the windows were shut. The freshly painted yellow walls seemed to be sweating.
Everyone sweated. Bill Clinton more than most. Two towels' worth of sweat, as he sat on a high-backed throne on the sanctuary, listening to local pols extol him and defend his wife. The most eloquent defense of Hillary Clinton -- and on this trip she is surrounded by defenders -- might have come from Brenda Terrell, a slight woman in a yellow dress, a trustee of the church: "Hillary Clinton understands that to be a supportive spouse, you don't have to be a silent, unopinionated spouse."
That comment got Arsenio-style "whoofs" and prolonged applause.
Through all, Clinton sat still and sweated. He listened to Gore quoting Gandhi and Shakespeare. He listened to an old man singing a gospel version of "My Way." He listened to local pols introducing each other at yawning length. He listened to the pastor of the church telling an emotional story about his Georgia daddy's desperate attempts to vote in the dark days before civil rights.
Clinton listened; Clinton sweated.
And then, thank God, he got his chance, and when Bill Clinton stood to speak, sweat pouring through his blue, Oxford shirt and probably through his suit, the choir sang, "We Shall Overcome." And Clinton waited at the lectern.
Then, in that humble-shucks way of his, his Southern accent seemingly more pronounced, Clinton says: "Ladies and gentlemen, I've never been so close to heaven and still been so hot."
The church tore apart with laughter. "If we did not have faith, we would have exploded by now."