Old-fashioned bus caravan favored by Clinton in campaign swings President welcomes chance to mingle with people along the way

September 20, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CENTRALIA, Wash. -- Like a superstitious ballplayer who won't change his socks during a streak, President Clinton climbed back on a bus yesterday, despite a steady rain, a double-digit lead in the polls and little evidence that Bob Dole is even contesting him in the Pacific Northwest.

Even with Clinton and Vice President Al Gore asserting that theirs was the team to lead the nation into the 21st century, an old-fashioned bus caravan has become their transportation of choice in the buoyant days since last month's Chicago convention.

It was also a bus trip that had jump-started the Clinton-Gore campaign in the summer of 1992, when a Democratic victory seemed anything but certain. White House aides say the president insists that the bus trips continue.

"He likes mingling with people, and this is about the best way you can do it," said Douglas Sosnik, the White House political director.

At that moment, Clinton was shaking hands and gabbing with exuberant townspeople in central Washington who had assembled in a park. They hadn't ponied up money for a fund-raiser. They hadn't been issued tickets. In fact, they hadn't done anything other than live in a state that went Democratic in 1992, Republican in the 1994 midterm elections and seems poised to veer back to Clinton in less than seven weeks.

"I want to thank you for coming out in such large numbers, and I can tell that a little rain has not dampened your spirits," Clinton told a crowd in Tacoma. "Are you ready to fight for the next six weeks and five days?"

Yesterday, the caravan -- which included first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore -- trekked from Seattle to Portland, stopping in towns like Roy, Fenino and Longview. Along the way, the presidential caravan encountered dreary weather, imaginative hecklers and friendly crowds.

The highlight was in Yelm, Wash., where schoolchildren serenaded the first lady with a song they had written -- consisting of many verses -- called "It Takes a Village," in tribute to her book of that name.

The president shushed the crowd so the youngsters could sing. And after they finished, he invited them to perform at his inauguration should he win a second term.

Clinton was careful to make the offer conditional. But campaign officials and local Democrats who tag along with the president are starting to think out loud in terms of a Clinton victory that is so vast that it sweeps Democrats into power along with it.

Rep. Norm Dicks used the word "landslide" yesterday. And the president and vice president themselves aggressively promoted the candidacies of local Democrats.

At one point, Clinton stopped in midspeech to bring a congressional candidate, Adam Smith, up to the stand. Gore did him one better by repeatedly introducing a candidate for Washington's secretary of state as if she already held the office.

Clinton has been giving the same speech for more than a month now, but he deviates from it in every place in a way that seems to connect with voters. Three times yesterday, until the sun came out in the afternoon, he used the same line -- to the approving laughter of crowds: "This is the only time it has ever rained on me in Washington state. Now, I feel like you've taken me in as one of your own."

"We've got six marginal seats in Washington that we think we can pick up," Sosnik said. "And this can't hurt."

Right now, things seem to be going so well in the campaign that Clinton aides were chuckling over the placards greeting the president -- even some of the needling signs.

Some were mean-spirited, like the one in Yelm that read, "Clinton is scum."

But most of the signs were friendly. In Ranier, a placard over a down-and-out nightclub said, "Hey, Bill, we need a sax player."

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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