Good Ol' Boy Clinton finds himself ahead in Ga., unharmed by draft issue

September 24, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Susan Baer, Washington BureauWashington Bureau Chief

VALDOSTA, GA — VALDOSTA, Ga. -- Striking at the heart of President Bush' Deep South base, Bill Clinton campaigned colorfully across rural south Georgia yesterday, casting himself as a pro-defense Democrat who would keep the United States militarily strong.

Mr. Clinton continues to play it safe politically, a strategy that seems to be paying off, if polls, which show him leading Mr. Bush by as much as 20 points nationwide, mean anything. Even here in Georgia, a state Mr. Bush took by a lopsided 60-40 margin in 1988, the Democratic nominee holds a lead of 6 to 10 percentage points in the most recent public and private polls.

Yesterday Mr. Clinton, running mate Al Gore and their wives stumped the most conservative part of the state, breaking no fresh ground but stepping up earlier criticism of Mr. Bush for vetoing a family leave bill.

"You know, 72 countries have a family and medical leave, but we're being told by the president we can't," Mr. Clinton told an outdoor rally in Columbus, Ga. "I was taught to believe that America was the 'we can' country, not the 'we can't' country. We can have strong families and a strong economy."

The Arkansas governor used a daylong bus tour through counties like Muskogee and Chattahoochee and the towns of Tifton and Valdosta to advertise his Southern roots and arm himself further against Mr. Bush's draft-related attacks.

The Democrats drew only modest crowds on a muggy, showery fall day. However, at the last event of the day, more than 5,000 people were waiting for Mr. Clinton outside the Lowndes County Courthouse in Valdosta.

Earlier, at a rally in Columbus, home of Fort Benning, one of the nation's largest military bases, Mr. Clinton wrapped himself in the political embrace of Sam Nunn, Georgia's senior senator and the Democratic Party's leading defense expert in Congress.

"Bill Clinton will be a commander-in-chief we can trust," Mr. Nunn told a crowd in the courtyard of the Iron Works, the site of a Confederate arms plant in the Civil War.

The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman's god-like statusamong the state's conservative voters was diminished by his vote last year against the gulf war. But his endorsement is still regarded as influential, especially in central and south Georgia, whose battered economies would be much worse off without the billions in defense spending that flow annually through an array of local bases and defense plants Mr. Nunn has worked to protect.

Mr. Clinton, downplaying his plans to cut defense spending by more than Mr. Bush has proposed, said he would rely on Mr. Nunn's advice on defense matters if elected president.

Though three of the cities visited yesterday have military bases and Columbus is home to many military retirees, the draft issue appears to have done little to hurt Mr. Clinton here yet. Indeed, it does not seem to be attracting much attention.

The local newspaper, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, made no mention of Mr. Bush's attack this week on Mr. Clinton over the draft, by far the president's harshest assault so far.

Yesterday the paper reported that local Vietnam veterans didn't seem to care about the issue and were more concerned about the economyand Mr. Bush's proposals to cut veterans' benefits.

Staff Sgt. Ronnie Hall, an Army mechanic at Fort Benning who attended the Clinton rally in camouflage fatigues, said he wasn't interested in what the presidential candidate had done 20 years ago.

"That doesn't make him a bad person," he said. "You have to look at the overall record."

In stump speeches that dripped with syrupy southernisms, Mr. Clinton attempted to establish a cultural kinship with Southern whites, whose votes will determine whether the Democrats finally break the Republican lock on the South this year.

He spoke fondly of Moon Pies and mudcats (catfish) and former President Jimmy Carter, who hails from this part of the state, and described Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, a key early supporter, as having "a red neck holding up a big brain."

The bus tour, his fifth of the campaign, also appeared to be aimed at energizing the region's large rural, black population, whose votes are essential to Democrats running statewide in Georgia.

Stopping his bus near a large peanut warehouse in Parrott, Ga., Mr. Clinton addressed an enthusiastic, racially mixed crowd that was waiting for him outside an abandoned storefront. Mr. Clinton urged a big turnout in November to vote for state Sen. Sanford Bishop, a black Democrat who unseated an incumbent congressman in the primary and is heavily favored to carry the district, which is 52 percent black.

An impressive array of elected state and local Democratic officials rode the 11-bus caravan, which made periodic "impromptu" stops like the one to buy boiled peanuts at a roadside stand and another for a stock car racer who blocked the highway with his black vehicle and a sign that read "Bubbas for Clinton-Gore."

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