CAIRO, Ill. - Rolling confidently from his convention in a nostalgic heartland bus caravan, President Clinton visited solid GOP territory Friday to plug his second-term agenda and label opponent Bob Dole's big tax cuts "just flat wrong."
Mr. Clinton had Vice President Al Gore and his and Mr. Gore's wives along for the ride as the Democrats sought to recreate their 1992 post-convention bus magic and nourish the double-digit lead they carried from their Chicago convention into the Labor Day weekend.
"Hillary and I and Al and Tipper, we want to see the face of America," Mr. Clinton said at a steamy rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo., a Mississippi River town in southeast Missouri last carried by a Democrat in the 1964 presidential election.
Reprising the theme of his Thursday night convention speech, Mr. Clinton said, "We want you to know that we are going to build a bridge to the 21st century that all of you can walk across."
After their wives said a quick hello, Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton gave speeches in Cape Girardeau that illustrated the Democrats' strategy for the 67-day sprint to Election Day: Remind voters of the 10 million jobs created on Mr. Clinton's watch, outline a laundry list of modest new proposals aimed at middle-class families and paint Mr. Dole and his Republicans as bent on cutting taxes so deeply they would have to gut Medicare and education to balance the budget.
Mr. Gore called Mr. Dole "a good and decent man who has served our country honorably." But he said Mr. Dole's $548 billion tax-cut plan would "shift the focus away from working families back to trickle-down economics."
Mr. Clinton said his modest, targeted tax cuts would give tax credits for two years of skills training after high school, or a tax deduction of up to $10,000 a year to help pay the costs of a four-year college.
"This is the right sort of tax program for America," Mr. Clinton said. Of Mr. Dole's plan, he said, "It is five times bigger and sounds sweeter (but) it is just flat wrong."
In California, Mr. Dole and Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp also focused on taxes. Mr. Kemp said anyone swayed by Mr. Clinton's tax argument should remember his unfulfilled 1992 promise to cut taxes. "Anyone who got a middle-class tax cut should vote for Bill Clinton in 1996," Mr. Kemp said to hoots from thousands of supporters rallying in Orange County's rodeo arena.
The president's 14-bus caravan was a sight to see in Cape Girardeau, a town of 35,000, which has a niche in national politics as the birthplace of conservative radio talk host Rush Limbaugh. "It's history for our city," said 80-year-old Gladys Ritter of the hoopla of a presidential visit.
Indeed, about 20,000 people packed Capaha Park for the first stop on the Clinton-Gore "Road to the 21st Century" campaign caravan. Dozens more lined the streets waving their support. "Give `Em Hell Hillary," read one roadside placard.
The Clintons and Gores were greeted by thousands more a few hours later in the southern Illinois town of Cairo. The buses stopped twice en route and the Clintons and Gores jumped out to shake hands with people gathered along the roadside. "I got to shake the hand of the president and the first lady," said 12-year-old Morgan Davis in tiny Phebes, Ill. "It is like the greatest thing in the world."
Not that the Dole-Kemp campaign and other Clinton foes made didn't make their presence felt: Five anti-abortion billboards greeted Mr. Clinton near the Cape Girardeau airport, and included criticism of his veto of legislation banning late-term abortions.
But on a day of celebration, Mr. Clinton was in no mood for distractions. Posing in front of his bus, he ignored a question about the resignation of top political strategist Dick Morris after a report of a liaison with a call girl. "I think it's time to get on the bus," Mr. Gore said. He later told reporters that in a call to Mr. Morris, "I thanked him for his help. I said I hope he is all right."
The Clintons and Gores left the 1992 convention by bus, taking a 1,000-mile, six-day trip through eight states. So successful was that trip that they teamed up for three more in the fall, and decided to try it again this year after the convention in Chicago.
"Do the big wave," Mrs. Gore said to the first lady in Cape Girardeau, recreating a favorite 1992 pose. Kentucky and Tennessee were on a two-day schedule after Missouri and Illinois.
Mr. Clinton left Chicago to chants of "Four More Years," and a slew of new public and campaign polls suggesting a lead of 12 to 15 percentage points or more over Mr. Dole with just nine weeks to go. The two camps hoped to begin debate negotiations next week, and Democrats were warning against overconfidence.
"We've got a fight in front of us here," party chairman Christopher Dodd told the Democratic National Committee. "This is the beginning of the campaign - not the end," Mr. Clinton said.
Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore confessed to being exhausted. Mr. Clinton said he had asked Mr. Gore late Thursday why they were not taking a day or two off before heading out to campaign and that the vice president deadpanned simply, and stiffly, "Because we do not wish Senator Dole to win the election."
But they were in high spirits a few hours later in Cape Girardeau.
Marveling at the crowd, Mr. Clinton said the last time he came here from nearby Arkansas he stopped to buy a soda "and nobody came out to see me."
Adding a new musical twist to a 1992 bus tour routine, Mr. Gore asked voters to consider whether they wanted to wake up Nov. 6 to a Dole victory and find "a cold sleet, the sky is dark, you've got a headache" or a Clinton win and "the sun is shining ... your favorite music is on the radio - the Macarena!"