Bus Brigade Shows a President's Star Power

Even Americans who won't vote for Clinton bring kids, camcorders

Dazed, the boy walks slowly along the curb, cradling his right hand reverentially in his left. "I can't believe it!" he murmurs to himself. Nick Burgess has just shaken hands with the president of the United States.

It was a scene repeated in towns all along the president's post-convention bus tour, and a ready reminder of the power of incumbency. All Bill Clinton - at once president and candidate for president - needs to do to generate excitement in a town is show up.

Never mind that Mr. Clinton's closest political adviser had just resigned after allegations of an affair with a call girl. Asked for a reaction, Edna Haynes of Cairo, Ill., offers a typical response: "Who's Dick Morris?"

For Republican challenger Bob Dole, who spent the weekend on a swing through the West, all the adulation directed at Clinton must be exasperating. The campaign has begun in earnest. The most stage-managed party conventions in history have come to their glorious balloon-dropping finales. And Clinton is back up to double-digit leads in the polls.

Beyond that, Clinton now gets to spend the next two months doing what he loves best: campaigning. "I know it's so important for the president to look into your eyes and hear what you have to say," First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton tells the crowd in Mayfield, Ky.

Still, the Clinton-Gore juggernaut faced signs of dissent during its four-state weekend "buscapade." At the first stop, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. - hometown of conservative talk-radio czar Rush Limbaugh - billboards and T-shirts decried abortion.

In tobacco country, the route into Mayfield was punctuated with banners such as this one: "Vote to keep the FDA off the Farm. Tobacco is Real People." The president recently approved a decision by the Food and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine as an addictive drug.

Hours before the president arrived in Paducah, Ky., the final destination of Day One, anti-FDA forces - with the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation and several tobacco groups at the lead - organized their own rally. Race-car driver A.J. Foyt spoke on behalf of his long-time sponsor, Nashville-based U.S. Tobacco Company.

But Clinton rally organizers barred anti-FDA signs from the presidential event, according to the local paper, the Paducah Sun. When Clinton finally got to Paducah, about two hours late, the crowd greeted him as if he were a rock star. Fireworks followed the speech. The next day's Paducah Sun ran a banner headline: "Clinton Hits High Note."

Not exactly Greyhound

A presidential bus tour is a spectacle to behold. The parade of official vehicles stretches down the highway as far as the eye can see - police cars, ambulances, Chevy Suburbans loaded with Secret Service agents, the president's bus, buses carrying White House staff and campaign staff, six busloads of journalists, and minivans marked "straggler" carrying presidential luggage.

It's a White House on wheels, with more star-power than just the Clintons and Gores. In Cairo, Ill., CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer dispensed autographs to admirers. MTV reporter Tabitha Soren, fresh off an exclusive interview with Clinton and looking ultra-hip in a lime green miniskirt, waved toward shouts of "Tabitha!"

While the main attractions perform on stage, top White House aides mix with the traveling press. Some aides snap pictures with disposable cameras, a hint that this trip is memorable for more than just the local residents. Four years ago, Clinton made several bus forays around the country, covering 17 states. This year, no other bus trips are planned so far, but as the Nov. 5 election approaches, Clinton will be spending more time campaigning outside the nation's capital.

A spin for tobacco country

Senior aides Harold Ickes and Doug Sosnik maintain that Clinton's decision to target tobacco use, particularly among teen-agers, will not kill the president's chances of winning the tobacco states he won in 1992, including Tennessee and Kentucky.

"Even people who don't agree with us [on tobacco] in Southern states do agree with the president's goal of reducing teen smoking," says Mr. Sosnik, the White House political director. He adds: "We're ahead in every state we won in '92, including the four states on the bus tour, an important swing region.

In Fulton, Ky., at least one prominent resident disagrees with Sosnik. "I believe it's a parent's job to keep kids from smoking," says physician Lee Elliott, who wasn't planning on voting for Clinton anyway. So why did he show up for this rally, camcorder in hand? "I wanted my children to see the president," he grins.

If outside the bus the public sees Clinton the Candidate, inside his bus he must sometimes be Clinton the President, where affairs of state beckon. In northern Iraq, a Kurdish city has been overrun by Iraqi divisions, and Clinton keeps the motorcade waiting while he talks on the phone with his national security adviser.

On most stops of the bus tour, Clinton delivers his standard stump speech, a condensed version of his convention address (though, pointedly, he and vice presidential nominee Al Gore now never mention tobacco). But in Troy, Tenn., the president makes an unscheduled stop and announces that US forces in the Mideast have been placed on high alert. It's a presidential moment for a small-town crowd.

On the road again, Clinton goes back to being the candidate, standing at the front of the slow-moving bus, waving and issuing greetings through a loudspeaker. Crowds, mostly supportive, line the bus route. "I want to meet Chelsea," a sign says. "No stop, no vote," says another. A few bystanders are doing the macarena. But others can't cope. Their banner reads: "Stop! We Need Help With The Macarena, Al!"

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