Across Prairies and Plains, Clinton Stumps Tenaciously In Traditionally GOP States

AT the end of the day, in the pitch dark, Gov. Bill Clinton chats quietly in a van on the airport tarmac with fashion designer Liz Claiborne and her husband, Art Ortenberg.

He has just returned to his plane from the frenzy of a Billings basketball gymnasium packed with supporters. The latest statewide poll shows him running 8 percentage points ahead of President Bush in a state that has not gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964.

But in a sober moment now, he speaks of both the elation and the responsibility that may be shifting onto his shoulders. "He is increasingly reflective as he realizes he's close to becoming president of the United States," says Mr. Ortenberg as Governor Clinton boards his plane.

Clinton had just finished Wednesday's tour through three Rocky Mountain states - the region that usually provides the foundation of the Republican electoral base. This is a politically aggressive trip: Clinton does not need these states to win.

This campaign day begins in Little Rock, Ark., where politics is remarkably personal. Even the hotel's van driver had met the Clinton family many times over the years. But then, 2 of 3 local columns and the editorial in Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette are anti-Clinton.

The plane lands in the khaki prairie and sharp dry air of Pueblo, Colo. This is the most Democratic county in the state. "We're lunchpail," says a bystander at the airport, meaning working class.

In a downtown plaza, Clinton and the seven Western-state Democratic governors traveling with him are introduced to the crowd. Clinton tells the audience he is a new kind of Democrat. The Republicans in power now, he says, "have run out of energy, they've run out of ideas."

While the politicians speak, young local campaign staffers scour the audience for Bush signs, seize them, and inconspicuously tear them up.

Afterwards, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer explains offstage what gives Clinton a shot in Republican territory. Of 16 Western governors, 11 are Democrats, he notes.

"The West buys a Democrat who's a problem-solver and a pragmatist. Clinton is a problem- solver and a pragmatist. We [fellow governors] have known him best," Governor Romer says.

In the crowd, a muscular Leon Vargas - long hair, beard, mirrored sunglasses, and well-pressed jeans - watches. His support for Clinton is heartfelt. "I was looking at tax stuff the other day," he explains, "and I'm making less now than I was 12 years ago."

As with some others who work at the local steel mill, or used to, the 1980s turned Mr. Vargas' life inside out. Between 1982 and 1987, he worked a total of 10 months. He lost the new car, new truck, and two Harley Davidsons he had collected. Many of his friends lost houses and marriages as well.

"Bush doesn't have any idea how we're suffering," he says. "Clinton does. At least he has the feeling for what we need."

Marge Lane, watching Clinton work a crowd from across the street, is not yet sold on him, but she likes his concern for working people - if it is genuine. She had hoped that seeing Clinton in person would settle the doubts in her mind. But after the rally, she says, "it's just the same" as watching on TV. So she remains undecided between Clinton and Ross Perot.

ON the way back from the Pueblo rally to the airport, Clinton's motorcade passes a man standing in his front yard, holding up a hand-lettered sign asking, "What about the draft?"

The campaign dropped down next in the rolling, grassy, plains of Cheyenne, Wyo. From the vast old brick and girder hangar where the crowd has gathered, they could see the pines in the sun through the myriad cracked panes of the vast hangar doors.

Joseph Cantwell, a retired building contractor with rough hands and a sun-beaten face, once travelled Wisconsin for months with John Kennedy. Clinton is not in President Kennedy's league, he admits. "But George Bush isn't in Kennedy's league, either," he says.

Sandy Murray, two blond toddlers in hand, was a Republican until this year. She likes what she has heard about Clinton's education record in Arkansas, and Bush, she says with feeling, "just hasn't done anything."

The campaign arrives in Billings, Mont., at twilight. Buttes and ridges fall away and rise again in the endless distance. Buses deliver Clinton, the governors, and the traveling press to the basketball gym of the Battling Bears at Rocky Mountain College. It is packed, loud, and stifling. The music is the theme from the movie, "How the West was Won."

Hundreds of handshakes and conversations later, Clinton has made it outside to his van. Forty yards away, some young people hold Bush signs and shout "Slick Willie go home!"

The governor stands in the dark, signing posters and recalling that he was 12 years old when "How the West was Won" came out. "It's still a great song," he says, to whoever is listening.

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