Clinton receives warm welcome by Baptist group of 10,000 in Fla. President stresses need to hire people off welfare

September 07, 1996|By BOSTON GLOBE

PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- From an adoring audience of black Baptists in Orlando to an enthusiastic crowd that breached the conservative sea walls of Panama City in the Florida panhandle, President Clinton celebrated encouraging economic news yesterday as he completed a two-day offensive in the Sunshine State.

On a day that the nation's unemployment rate fell to 5.1 percent of the work force, Clinton declared, "This country is moving in the right direction. We're on the right track for the 21st century."

In an appearance at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention, Clinton was greeted by chants of "four more years" from a friendly, hand-waving crowd of more than 10,000.

After extolling the latest employment figures, which chart a drop from the 7.8 percent unemployment rate at a comparable time in the Bush administration, the president addressed his decision to sign the welfare bill, a questionable issue in many black circles.

"I want every child to grow up in a community where work is the standard, where earning a paycheck is a thing of pride," Clinton said.

Rather than defending the controversial measure, the president challenged the Baptist clergymen and members of their congregations to take the lead in hiring welfare recipients.

"I want every pastor in this audience to think about it," Clinton said. "If every church in America hired one person off welfare it would set an example that would require the business community to follow, that would require charitable and other nonprofit organizations to follow."

The Baptist group, which claims to be the largest African-American organization in the country, offered a hospitable venue for the Southern Baptist president, who thrives in such settings.

Clinton was preceded by a melodious sermon by a minister who warned of snakes in church congregations and called for joyful noises to drive out the serpents. When the president was finished, he was serenaded by a soaring jazz rendition of "Amazing Grace" by a young woman saxophonist.

In Panama City, along a Gulf Coast strip where Clinton drew only one-third of the vote in 1992, families with children in tow gathered in withering heat in parking lots of Wal-Mart stores, bowling alleys and trailer parks, lining Clinton's motorcade route to see the first president to appear here.

Although most of the voters here are registered Democrats, for years they have cast their lot with Republicans in presidential contests.

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles described the throng that jammed a community college gymnasium "Democrats who decided they'd rather fight than switch." He praised Clinton for his efforts to bring the Democratic Party "back in the middle, representing middle America, a strong defense, and family values."

Clinton's enthusiastic reception during this week's visit put pressure on Bob Dole, the Republican presidential nominee, to step up his efforts to hold Florida.

The president's aides made it clear that the purpose of the trip was to force Dole to spend time and money to defend the state, and they said Clinton was prepared to return to Florida later this fall to intensify his own efforts to win its 25 electoral votes.

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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