ABOARD THE SPIRIT OF THE 21st CENTURY -- President Clinton, riding the rails to the Democratic convention, yesterday launched his re-election campaign with full-throated, fist-waving whistle-stop speeches to huge crowds who stood in searing heat chanting in response: "Four more years!"
"Would you take a U-turn if you were going in the right direction?" Clinton asked a crowd of more than 15,000 in Huntington, W.Va., just before boarding the train. "No!" the crowd answered.
Putting aside his Rose Garden strategy -- and any pretext of being above partisan politics -- the president criticized the tax cut plan of Republican candidate Bob Dole, made a point of sticking up for his wife, and at each stop ticked off the litany of legislation and economic statistics achieved during his first term. They ranged from 10 million new jobs to a declining violent crime rate and lower federal deficits.
"We're on the right track to Chicago," Clinton said in Ashland, Ky. "And we're on the right track to the 21st century," he added in an allusion to the year he hopes to leave the Oval Office.
Tackling head on an issue that the Republicans think is their best bet, the president warned of dire consequences if the 15 percent Dole-Kemp tax cut is enacted.
He said interest rates would increase if the federal deficit was increased -- and said that the only way that the deficit wouldn't go up after such a whopping tax cut is if the GOP made cuts in Medicare, social programs, education and the environment.
"That's a pretty song, that big old tax cut," the president conceded. "But if you give [Republicans] the White House, there won't be anybody to say no. And they'll get to do their U-turn and it won't be pretty. Then you'll have to deal with the consequences."
The trip in the 13-car train is to cover 500 miles and a dozen stops before arriving outside Chicago Wednesday night. The luxurious car housing the presidential party is owned by a Florida undertaker named Jack Heard, who said the only retrofitting he had to do for this trip is to add armor plating. Clinton -- who is being accompanied by his daughter, Chelsea, through tomorrow -- will spend most of these four days sitting in a large swivel chair upholstered in dark blue fabric with gold lions. The trip is to take the president through Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana -- states White House political director Doug Sosnik said yesterday would be crucial in a closely contested election.
White House aides had promised that the president would "make news" on this trip in the form of offering specific proposals for a second term. Apparently, those details are to be doled out beginning today: Yesterday the campaign was content to get the president moving while touching on the main themes he will stress in Chicago and in the 10-week campaign that follows.
"The news today was that the train ran on time -- at least for now," quipped Clinton-Gore spokesman Joe Lockhart.
One bit of unexpected news was that at Huntington and again at Ashland, the heat was so intense that dozens of people in the crowds standing on the black asphalt had to be taken out by stretchers.
The president himself ignored the heat. The themes he stressed were Hillary, heroes and hope.
The first lady -- who appeared with him at Huntington -- was indirectly criticized at the Republican convention by Dole and others who took exception to the implication of her book, "It Takes a Village."
Yesterday, the president argued back. "With all due respect to my opponent, I think it does take a village to raise a child, strengthen a family, build a community -- and build a country."
At each stop yesterday, the president also introduced a local "hero." In Chillicothe, Ohio, that proved to be a woman who put herself through college. In Ashland, the restive crowd grew silent as Kevin Gunderson, a former police officer paralyzed after being shot in the line of duty, thanked the president for his work toward putting 100,000 new police officers on the streets of America.
The third theme was hope for the future, as the campaign -- and the candidate -- repeatedly invoked the image of the 21st century.
"My strategy for the 21st century is simple," the president proclaimed. "Opportunity for all, responsibility from all."
Even in the era of jet travel, trains occupy a nostalgic place in the hearts of presidents. Harry S Truman's desperate, come-from-behind "Give 'em Hell, Harry" whistle-stop tour was the benchmark -- and every president since has attempted to recapture the magic of that 1948 campaign.
Clinton's train tour already has the feel of Ronald Reagan's successful 1984 whistle-stop trip through Ohio. Not only is the president mining the same same fertile electoral soil, but the imagery -- and even the language -- are strikingly similar.
When Reagan arrived in Lima, Ohio, he said there was a clear choice between what he offered and the future envisioned by Democratic challenger Walter F. Mondale.
"It's a choice between two fundamentally different ways of looking at America," Reagan said. "My opponent, Mr. Mondale, offers a future of pessimism, fear and limits, compared to ours of hope, confidence and growth."
Clinton hit all those themes himself. At times, it seemed he was giving Reagan's speech.
"I'm on my way to Chicago," Clinton said. "I'm going on a train because I want to see people like you that I've been working for and fighting for and because I want America to know we are on the right track in this country and we're going forward, not turning back."
Pub Date: 8/26/96