Nostalgia prevails on final lap President wistful over 'last' race

Reminders of political life fill end of tour

The Clinton campaign

Campaign 1996

November 04, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- Everywhere he goes on the final, frenetic 17-state 1996 campaign swing, Bill Clinton wistfully tells his audiences, "I'm on the verge of finishing my last campaign."

He quickly adds a light caveat -- "Unless I run for the school board someday."

But audiences rarely laugh at this whimsical prediction, perhaps because it seems too revealing. It has begun to dawn on everyone who sees him -- and even, finally, on this born campaigner himself -- that today might be the last time that Bill Clinton asks other Americans to vote for him.

"He says this is the last time, but I don't think it's really hit him yet," longtime Arkansas aide Bruce Lindsey said two nights ago at a chilly outdoor rally along the Mississippi River. "Look at him."

Yesterday, when an admirer in Florida invited him for a game of golf. Clinton said he needed a rain check, adding: "We've got a lot of miles to go." He wasn't kidding.

Despite a seemingly safe lead over Bob Dole, the president arose just after dawn, gave a sermon-like talk on race relations at an African-American church here, worked a rope line at the Tampa airport and delivered his standard stump speech in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Newark, N.J., before heading up to New England.

After yesterday's full day, Clinton was facing an even longer one today. He is to go to Cleveland, Ohio; Lexington, Ky.; and Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before arriving -- long after midnight -- in Little Rock, Ark., where he will vote tomorrow and await election returns.

In a low-key, 45-minute exchange with reporters aboard Air Force One on the way north, Clinton said that he had personally picked the schedule himself. The primary consideration, he said, were close Senate races in New Jersey, Iowa and South Dakota where he thought his appearance could boost the chances of various Democratic candidates.

He added, though, that he chose to spend the night in New Hampshire last night for purely sentimental reasons. Clinton credits his second-place finish there in 1992 for putting allegations of infidelity and draft-dodging behind him. It was also the first place he'd stood for election outside Arkansas and the first time he'd asked Americans to go to the polls and vote for Bill Clinton for president.

Clinton's eyes welled with tears and he became emotional as he reminisced about one of the most searing experiences of his presidency, the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The president's nostalgia has been evident at other times, this week, too. In Nevada, his voice grew husky while recalling for his audience how his mother, who died last year of cancer, used to trek to the state's casinos where she was a pampered low-roller.

"Every time I come here to Las Vegas, I think of my wonderful mother who loved this community so much," he said. "and I wish she were here with me still for this election."

In Denver, while gently teasing Colorado Gov. Roy Romer for breaking his leg in the youthful pursuit of riding a motorcycle, Clinton, who turned 50 this year, referred to himself and his old friend from his days in the National Governors Association as "aging warriors."

Everywhere he has gone this week in his self-described "last campaign," Clinton has been presented with tangible reminders of human mortality -- and of a life spent in the pursuit of seeking votes.

Sentimental gifts

Sometimes they come in the form of sentimental gifts from old friends in politics.

In Little Rock, David Leopoulos, Clinton's ally from their student government days at Hot Springs High, handed the president a box of acorns. "We used to throw acorns at cars when we were kids," Leopoulos explained.

In San Antonio, Democrats Clinton has known since 1972 slipped him some his favored mango ice cream to take on Air Force One. "My heart is full of gratitude today," he said.

Yesterday, in Florida, a Democrat named Robert Haigh presented Clinton with a volleyball as a way of remembering his beach volleyball game with the president-elect in Santa Barbara in 1992.

But along the way, Clinton has been presented with a lot more than inexpensive mementos.

In Ypsilanti, Mich., at the beginning of his final, six-day trip, Clinton was dutifully shaking hands along the rope line when he saw someone he knew. A tender reunion followed. The president's friend was 8-year-old Stephanie Smith, whose long lashes and tiny earrings made her look elegant, but whose unnaturally pale skin revealed a serious illness.

Stephanie wore an oversized "Vote Clinton" sweat shirt that didn't quite hide her amputated leg. Her father, Paul Smith, ex- plained later that she has a "unique immune system disorder" that has baffled her doctors. Clinton met the little girl when she visited the White House under the auspices of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and he has stayed in touch with her ever since.

Clinton took her from her father's arms and held her, gently caressing a head left bald from chemotherapy. "Are you keeping your spirits up?" he asked her.

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