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Bill and Al show plays like winner

Published Oct. 12, 2005

It looked like a monster truck rally, mixed with a rock concert, instead of the Bill Clinton campaign.

Thousands of banner-waving, boot-stomping, hat-wearing people filled the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion here Monday night.

On cue, the Clinton buses pulled into the arena and did most of a lap around the dirt track while the band broke into a rafter-shaking version of "Taking Care of Business."

The Democrats of Central Florida, who are exactly the kind of people who decide who gets to be president of the United States, jumped to their feet and danced until the bleachers shook.

And when Bill and Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore took the stage, the crowd literally screamed.

This is crazy. This is Florida.

Republican Florida.

But Clinton drew huge, sprawling, energetic crowds in Daytona Beach, Orlando and Ocala, and even made a quick stop in conservative Lake County.

In Republican Orlando, the governors of Georgia, Virginia and Florida (no, they're not ashamed of Lawton) introduced Clinton. With them stood Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who, Clinton said, "has stood by me."

Chiles summed it up for every Democrat there: "Doesn't it feel great to have a ticket we can wholeheartedly believe in and support?"

Clinton and Al Gore hammered at the president all day. He vetoed a family leave bill, they reminded their audiences. He vetoed the cable TV bill. He has just opened the way for oil drilling off Florida.

"Florida," they kept saying, "can close the door on trickle-down economics."

Gore, who is a better campaigner than when he ran for president in 1988, warmed up the crowd for Clinton.

Everything that should be up, Gore said _ housing starts, employment _ is down, and everything that should be down _ the deficit _ is up.

Do you want four more years of trickle-down economics? he asked each crowd. No, they shouted. Of Dan Quayle? A louder shout. Of George Bush?

This penchant of Gore's for asking questions backfired in Daytona, when, in the middle of his routine, he pointed to the crowd and asked: "Do we need medical attention?" Thinking he meant health care, the crowd cheered, but Gore was trying to get a doctor for someone.

Despite Clinton's warm reception across the state, President Bush still has a lot of support in Florida, and the Republicans made sure to show it.

Everywhere the Democrats traveled, there were "Bush/Quayle" signs. As the bus caravan passed through Central Florida, most people waved and smiled, but some gave a thumbs-down and sometimes used a finger instead.

Most of the pro-Bush demonstrators also were anti-abortion protesters. "Abortion Kills Children" was as common a sign as "Bush/Quayle." In Orlando, they waved large, graphic color photos of fetuses.

A smaller number of anti-Clinton signs complained about infidelity, draft-dodging and taxes. The best of these was a hot air balloon outside the pavilion in Ocala with a huge sign: "Can't Afford The Bill _ Bill."

I saw exactly one Ross Perot sign on the entire trip, which tied him with Andre Marrou, the Libertarian candidate.

The rallies almost came to violence in Daytona Beach, where Clinton supporters ripped placards and a large banner away from Bush supporters, and in Orlando, where the Democrats sent members of Ironworkers Local 808 to keep the Bush crowd behind the ropes.

The Democrats should have been more graceful about it. Clinton should have welcomed the demonstrators and made them feel generally silly. Instead, the Democrats made them feel martyred.

Monday night, the press corps of the entire world sat in a concrete bunker and watched Clinton and Gore live with Larry King on CNN. They did fine, except that Clinton flip-flopped like a fish on the dock about the free-trade agreement. Tuesday morning they drew 15,000 to 20,000 people on the campus of the University of Florida, then they left the state.

But it was Ocala that stuck with me the most. That crowd hooted and hollered and jumped like nothing else I've seen, and as I sat there, the thought that I had been pushing aside for days finally fought its way out into the open:

He is going to win, isn't he? He's going to win Florida, and he is going to be president.