Town hopes 'Comeback Kid' backtracks for visit CLINTON'S FIRST 100 DAYS

April 29, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

SANDOVAL, Ill. -- In this prairie town, where patriotism and poverty live side by side, residents long for the day when the Comeback Kid comes back.

It isn't much to look at, this speck on the map in south central Illinois. But little Sandoval is the town that brought Bill Clinton's bus to a screeching halt. Even hardened political operatives recall it as one of those mystical moments.

Rushing from one rally in Centralia to another in Vandalia last July 21, running late as usual, Mr. Clinton was amazed to see virtually the whole population of this town gathered by the side of Highway 51 with flags fluttering.

He couldn't resist.

As his Secret Service escort sped on up the highway, Mr. Clinton ordered his bus to pull off into the parking lot of Mary's Ceramics Shop and plunged into the crowd.

After the Secret Service limousine made a quick turnaround, the candidate jumped onto it and delivered a gravel-voiced speech. Later, in Vandalia, he would say that when he and Al Gore are old men, they will still be talking about that crowd in Sandoval.

If President Clinton were to return to Sandoval -- and people here have heard he intends to visit -- he would receive a rousing welcome.

Three months into his presidency, Sandoval's overwhelmingly Democratic, virtually all-white population is still proud of Mr. Clinton. It's a poor town, where many people live in battered mobile homes, and where the idea of a government that actively tries to help people is popular.

There's nothing about Sandoval that would seem strange to a former governor of Arkansas.

Populist Democrats and conservative Republicans put aside their differences to drape flags on the graves of veterans every Memorial Day. Many of its children fought in the Persian Gulf. And the idea of gays in the military doesn't play well here, even among Mr. Clinton's ardent supporters.

Carolyn Henson, Sandoval's Democratic precinct committeewoman, helped organize the red, white and blue gathering that stopped Mr. Clinton in his tracks. She genuinely likes him, and that can't be said for every presidential candidate her party has nominated in recent years.

"I hope to see him in for another term and then I hope to see Al Gore in for two terms," she says.

But if Mr. Clinton were to visit the cozy double mobile home where she lives and runs a small tax-return service, the LTC outspoken Mrs. Henson would tell him bluntly that he's wrong on gays.

"I don't like them taking it and making it an issue in the military," says Mrs. Henson, proudly wearing a Desert Storm T-shirt.

Still, her conservative views on gays and abortion are outweighed by her hopes that Mr. Clinton help improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

She's particularly happy that Mr. Clinton is making an effort to reform the health care system. A one-woman social services agency, she says she's seen senior citizens die because they couldn't afford prescription drugs. And she sees bleak prospects for herself when her health coverage runs out a year from now, leaving her uninsurable because of a form of lupus that accounts for $10,000 in medical bills each year.

Her friend Joe Blunt pulls up a pants leg to show a leg wound that required stitches. It cost him more than $300, he says.

The burly sawmill owner, who is every bit as uninsured as his 25 employees, voted for George Bush because he was afraid of the costs a Democrat might impose on small business.

But he's also wrestling with the problem of attracting desirable employees when he can't afford to offer them health benefits. So he's glad to see Mr. Clinton trying to deal with health care, though he's crossing his fingers that the plan won't impose too heavy a burden on his business.

"We get health care, we'll all be better off," he says. "I could get some good people if they had insurance."

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