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Florida warms to Clinton

Picture this: A sun-drenched afternoon with the first cool breeze of autumn. A leafy lakeside park in Orlando. And people as far as the eye can see, waving signs and cheering for a Democrat for president.

Picture a rodeo arena in Ocala packed to the rafters with perhaps 10,000 people screaming, "We want Bill!"

This is Florida?

This is the state where Democrat Michael Dukakis gave up and closed his campaign office by the end of September 1988. This is Central Florida near Interstate 4, the Republican heart of a conservative state.

But Bill Clinton and Al Gore, encouraged by polls that show a dead heat here with President Bush, brought their bus tour to Central Florida on Monday to encourage Florida's doubts about Bush.

"The Republicans have believed for years that they own Florida in the general election," Clinton told his crowds. "You can turn out the lights on trickle-down economics and open a new day."

Florida is a prize for any presidential candidate. It has 25 electoral votes, fourth after California, New York and Texas. But no Democrat has carried Florida since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Clinton began the day with a speech to black college students in Daytona Beach. Then the 13-bus motorcade rolled through Republican territory in Orlando, Leesburg and Ocala, where Clinton finished the day by appearing on CNN's Larry King Live. (King was in Ocala, which impressed even the jaded national press corps, working in a makeshift newsroom inside a rodeo barn.)

Turnout for Clinton was heavy at every stop.

"I'm Bushed to death," said Albert McWilliams, 55, of Orlando, who lost his job to disabilities and has no health insurance. "George Bush is of the old school _ I am, too _ and he don't know what's going on in the country. That man has no idea what we have to go through."

A man named Ben from Winter Park _ his wife wouldn't let him give his last name _ said he voted for Bush in 1988 but has turned vehemently against him. "I'm outta work, baby. That's it."

Certainly not everyone in Florida is a Clinton convert. While most people along the bus route cheered and waved _ one white-haired woman even danced like a cheerleader in a highway crossover _ others turned thumbs down as Clinton roared past. Several people held hand-made Bush signs; one man held his nose. A few gestures were obscene.

Organized groups of Bush supporters were visible and noisy at every Clinton rally, and a few of them scuffled with the Clinton crowd on the boardwalk in Daytona Beach. One man wore a duck suit to remind the crowd Clinton "ducked" the Vietnam draft.

"One of the reasons our opponents are getting so incredibly negative and personal is that a lot of Republicans are helping our campaign," said Clinton.

"That's right!" shouted someone in the crowd.

Marguerite Rasserberger, a single mother who works as a park ranger, let her two boys skip school Monday to see Clinton in Daytona Beach.

"It's the only hope my kids have," she said. "Twelve years of Republican rule has broken me. I make $17,000. I haven't had a raise in three years. I'm sinking."

Then she put an arm around each of her tan, blond boys, ages 13 and 8, and looked up defiantly. "And this is a family," she said.

Clinton didn't spoil the mood by saying anything troublesome or controversial. He described a Clinton administration as a rosy new dawn and promised to wake up every day thinking about the needs of middle-class Americans.

Facing a group of farmers in Leesburg, he ignored a half-dozen signs that read "NAFTA Steals Jobs" and didn't try to explain why he just endorsed the free-trade agreement with Mexico that worries farmers so.

Greeted all day by scores of silent abortion protesters who held signs that read "Abortion Kills Children," Clinton never mentioned abortion.

Ken Wright, chairman of the Orange County Republicans, explained his preference for Bush.

"I would rather see my money in the economy than to send it to Washington for the government to spend it. I'm very concerned about my taxes," he said. "I'm very concerned about the person of Bill Clinton himself. If you can't say anything else about George Bush, you can say he is an honest guy."

At every stop, Clinton and Gore told Floridians they have two reasons to be especially irked with Bush. He vetoed a bill to regulate cable television rates, and, according to Clinton, Florida has more cable per capita than any other state. Gore flew to Washington to vote in the successful congressional override Monday night, the first time a Bush veto has failed.

The other reason is that Bush promised to bar offshore drilling for oil and gas near Florida but recently reversed his decision.

"Now he's broken that promise to Florida, just like he broke his promise when he said, "Read my lips,' " Gore said in Daytona Beach. "And now he says this election is about trust?"

Gov. Lawton Chiles met the bus motorcade in Orlando and told the crowd he was relieved not to be embarrassed by the Democrats' presidential nominee for a change. The two Southern governors are political pals, and Chiles noted that the Republicans want to hurt Clinton with television commercials linking him to Chiles, whose popularity has suffered the past year.

"Those ads are gonna backfire," Chiles said, "because he's so dadgum popular, he's gonna pull me up."

Campaign trail

Here's where the candidates are scheduled to be today:

Bush: Washington, D.C.

Clinton: In Florida ending two-day bus trip in Gainesville, then to Nashville, Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark.

Perot: Aides say Ross Perot has no public appearances scheduled this week.