Last hurrah for a legendary campaigner

Bill Clinton is going to bat one last time.

Since the days of the 1992 primaries, Mr. Clinton has been the consummate campaigner - a heavyweight of handshakes, a Ted Williams of the stump.

Now, as his tenure in the White House nears an end, he's out on the trail again. And like the Red Sox slugger, he's trying to hit a home run in his final at bat, putting his wife in the Senate, the House in Democratic hands, and Al Gore in the White House.

The reception he receives here, at a rally for congressional hopeful Eleanor Jordan, is nothing short of ecstatic. Some chant "four more years," as if they could put off his retirement.

To some degree, that's expected at Democratic rallies. Yet his enduring popularity among many Americans remains a defining political story of these times. Even after repeated scandals and impeachment, he remains a figure that many people can't resist.

"He's magnetic. He's got an aura about him," says Joe Peacock, who came to see him in a hot high school gym.

Clinton hasn't always been so hot on the campaign trail. Who can forget his rambling introduction of Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic convention? Or, among Arkansans, the hubris and tax hikes that cost him his second run at the governorship?

But today, Democrats recite his career stats with pride: seven out of nine elections won, and the first two-term Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt.

"It's not like Democrats before Clinton had a lot of success," says Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist policy group which helped hatch this New Democrat. "He's extraordinarily skilled. He has an incredible personal connection, even when talking to a crowd."

In a moment in the high school gym, as the leader of the school's young Democrats left the podium, Clinton chased after the boy to ensure he had the chance to shake a president's hand.

On the stump, Clinton's message comes in three simple points: Vote Democratic to keep economic prosperity going; vote for their program of debt reduction to free up money for healthcare, education and the environment; and vote for the party that's building an inclusive America.

He also strikes at George W. Bush, meeting charges of big government and partisanship with his administration's record of 300,000 fewer federal employees and a list of bipartisan accomplishments, such as welfare reform, land conservation, and a balanced-budget agreement.

Stephen Hess, a political observer at the Brookings Institution, says Mr. Gore is being "too clever by half" to use the president so sparingly. Most of Clinton's campaign stops for Gore have been to rally the black community, such as his visit this week to New York City's Harlem.

The president has spent more time campaigning for House and Senate candidates. Today, he heads to California to get out the vote for Gore and help Democrats in tight congressional races.

But there may be a certain wisdom to Gore's cautious approach - especially given that his boss's impeachment is again in the news. In the latest issue of Esquire magazine, Clinton paints himself as morally superior - saying he has apologized to the country for his mistakes, but Republicans have never apologized for their role in impeachment. It's the kind of argument that might not go over well in the conservative, battleground heartland.

One thing's certain. When Clinton lays down his bat Jan. 20, he won't - like Williams - retire to Florida. He "is going to have an ... important role in the future of the Democratic Party," says Mr. From, whether in policy, fundraising, or party building.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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