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Clinton gets friendly welcome as campaign heads South

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton reached out to Georgia's Democratic leaders Tuesday _ literally.

As he was finishing a speech in downtown Atlanta, the platform beneath him gave way and he was pitched into the arms of Georgia Gov. Zell Miller and other surprised Democrats.

No one was hurt, but it was a fitting image for the former Democratic front-runner. After a bruising month in New Hampshire, Clinton is looking to southern Democrats for help in advance of the March 3 Georgia primary and the March 10 Super Tuesday primaries that include Florida's.

Most of Georgia's Democratic leaders, including Miller and Sen. Sam Nunn, had endorsed Clinton before rumors of marital infidelity and draft-dodging surfaced.

The rally, held just beneath Cable News Network's studios at CNN Plaza, was designed to show that southern Democrats still stand by their man.

Not surprisingly, those at the rally put the best possible face on Clinton's second-place showing in New Hampshire and the damage done by rumors about his private life. Miller called Clinton's finish in New Hampshire, where he got 26 percent of the vote to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas' 35 percent, "the biggest come-from-behind surprise since the Atlanta Braves."

In Georgia, the biggest concern about Clinton isn't the rumor about infidelity. Rather, it is the allegation that Clinton evaded the draft in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War.

Georgia is a staunchly pro-military state. For 80 years, Georgia politicians have courted the Army and Navy to place their bases in the state.

Clinton made no mention of the military in his brief speech to the rally, but Miller and others brought it up. Miller was a Marine and he still wears a Marine Corps insignia on his coat lapel. "Here in Georgia," he told the crowd, "we know how to honor our own. And this old Marine Corps sergeant is proud to call Bill Clinton one of our own."

One Democrat standing behind Miller agreed. Jim Wiggins is a district attorney from middle Georgia. Asked how he felt about Clinton's efforts to stay out of the military, Wiggins said, "I'm a Vietnam vet. I came back in 1968, and I don't blame anybody for the stands they took in 1968 or 1969."

Clinton "may get by in southern states because of the weak field, but the South is a place that has that incredible military, patriotic background, more so than any other region," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "And I do think the "you saved me from the draft' letter could hurt him there."

Exit polls in New Hampshire showed only 6 percent of the voters found significance in the stories about Clinton's womanizing or his draft status. But Hess said, "When you go into a presidential race, when you talk about losing 6 percent, you're very likely talking about losing the election. Come the fall, those numbers wouldn't appear so small."

Another assumption is that Clinton might do better among black voters. His civil rights record in Arkansas is usually praised, and Tsongas has never had to reach out to black voters. But this year, black voters are looking for the same thing as white voters, said Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa lawyer.

"I think everybody is united. They're all concerned about the economy," said Joyner, who supports Clinton. "If children aren't eating, it's all the children who aren't eating."

After the Atlanta appearance, Clinton traveled to downtown Orlando for a rally were he hammered away at George Bush, saying the Republican president has no national economic plan and no plan to provide a system of national health care.

The biggest response from the crowd at Church Street Station came after Clinton warned the Bush campaign that "I will challenge every American to change. I will give you more opportunity and impose more responsibility. We have to recreate a common sense of purpose in America today. And if they try to run one of those race-baiting, divisive campaigns on me, I will stick it to 'em!"

He was referring to a tactic used by Bush's 1988 campaign suggesting that Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis might be soft on crime because a black man convicted of murder in Dukakis' home state who committed rape while on furlough.

Clinton has a lot going for him in Florida. Wednesday's shindig showed that he has money, political support and organization here.

_

Times staff writers Otis White, David Rogers and Ellen Debenport contributed to this report.

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