Clinton Bus Moves South While the Poll Numbers Head Straight up North

ON THE ROAD

IT was a memorable dawn. Brilliant shafts of red light, radiating from the sun like a celestial version of Japan's battle flag, filled the eastern sky, and heralded a bright, cloudless day.

The Clinton-Gore campaign, on its sixth bus tour, was already on the move. Sleepy-eyed reporters scanned the papers, and TV crews adjusted their equipment as the caravan rumbled along Florida highway A1A.

Buoyed by the latest polls, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and their wives, were making a bold move - and the press wanted to be there. The candidates were charging into the subtropical heart of Bush country, a land of wide beaches, citrus groves, and ultraconservative retirement villages.

This was a trip, says a Clinton aide, designed to jam a knife into the Bush-Quayle campaign.

Even with an early start, the caravan soon runs behind schedule. Perhaps someone overslept. The staff is working around the clock. Governor Clinton didn't get into Daytona until midnight. Senator Gore didn't arrive until 1:30 a.m. Little time for rest.

First stop this morning: Bethune-Cookman College, a school founded by a young African-American woman. The Democrats get a thunderous reception. Jesse Jackson recently visited and registered hundreds to vote.

In this biracial Southern milieu, the strengths of Clinton and Gore become apparent. Their Deep South roots help them fit comfortably into this mostly black college. When the gospel choir breaks into the doxology, Clinton and his wife, Hillary, sing along spontaneously.

Only Gore misses his cue. He has a favorite line about the birds singing more sweetly after a Clinton victory. During his speech, a wayward mockingbird criss-crosses the college gym. Somehow Gore misses this chance to tie his line to this melodic songbird, which is also the official state representative.

Between stops, reporters swap impressions. Before the next rally at a beachfront bandshell, one scribe who just finished a month with President Bush says the mood in the Republican campaign is "grim."

No such mood here. The drivers in our 11 buses honk merrily at sign-waving crowds along the route. Some reporters in the press buses are embarrassed. They're supposed to be impartial. But the drivers ignore them. Honk. Honk.

It's less merry at the bandshell. Two hundred Bush supporters show up with signs reading "Abortion Kills Children" and "Bush/Quayle '92."

Twenty Bush people infiltrate the Clinton crowd. Shoving begins. Angry words. Bush people are outnumbered. Afterward, the ground is covered with a snowfall of shredded Bush signs.

Four years ago Democrat Michael Dukakis pulled his coordinator out of Florida early. He'd given up. Mr. Bush won by 22 points. Not this time. Several Florida political reporters now call the state a tossup.

Back on the bus, the day is racing on. We're given our choice of box lunches: "C" on the box means chicken sandwich; "CB" means crab. I pick "C." It turns out to be crab. But it's good.

Down Interstate 4 to Orlando. Huge crowd. Governors show up from Florida, Georgia, and Virginia to urge a big Clinton vote.

This reporter takes a wrong turn, and somehow is steered into the VIP section. A nice turn of events. Surrounded by dignitaries, I bag several interviews.

We keep moving, but Clinton jumps off his bus every time he sees a crowd.

A schoolyard full of children? We stop. A retirement village crowd standing by the highway? We stop.

Mrs. Clinton talks about this. On the first bus tour in July, the governor halted the bus constantly. They ran hours late. The staff was frantic. Wouldn't Hillary persuade Bill to keep the bus moving? She tried, but....

"When we rolled up [to the next town] there were about 250 people, and he was just supposed to wave, when all of a sudden he saw a sign that said: `Give Us 8 Minutes and We'll Give You 8 Years.' And he said, `STOP THE BUS!"'

Florida was like that. Hundreds along the roads. Clinton jumps out, talks, shakes hands. No hurry. Finally, big rallies at the end: 5,000 people in Ocala, maybe 15,000 in Gainesville.

Clinton seems rested, happy, despite the pace. He'll do more of these trips if elected, he promises. A bus puts him close to people, as Air Force One never could.

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