Planes Trains & automobiles: Clinton on the voters' track

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The Independent Online
Any form of transport is at the disposal of candidates running for the White House, but if it is romance, patriotic imagery and old-fashioned populism that you are after, nothing can beat the iron horse.

Abraham Lincoln rode the rails to power, and so did Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt. This week it is President Bill Clinton who is trying to capture the whistle-stop magic with a four-day train swing through five states of the Midwest, many of which are critical battlegrounds in the 1996 election, on his way to the Democrat convention which opened without him in Chicago yesterday.

Of course, Mr Clinton could have flown to Chicago aboard Air Force One. Considering the overwhelming logistics of packing a miniature White House and a full press corps into 10 railway carriages and navigating them halfway across the country, flying would certainly have been easier. But what a missed opportunity that would have been.

"I'm going on a train," he declared on one of his stops yesterday, "because I want to see people like you that I've been working for, and fighting for, for four years." Never mind that most Americans no longer travel by train. The historical resonance of trains escapes no one; certainly not a campaign professional like Mr Clinton.

This ride is the on-location part of the Democrats' convention week. The studio work is being done inside the United Center in Chicago where Mr Clinton will appear on Thursday. But this is the part where the President puts on a show of getting out with the voters themselves, something he does with aplomb and skill.

Mr Clinton yesterday used a stop in Columbus, Ohio, to deride the Republican Party for resisting gun control, and made new proposals to strengthen a handgun Bill. The President accused the Republicans of portraying his policies as an assault on law-abiding sports hunters. He quipped, to roars of approval from the crowd: "I didn't know a single deer hunter with an Uzi - not a one".

This trip has been scripted by Harry Thomason and Mort Engelberg, the same pair of Hollywood producers who conjured up Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's smash-hit bus tour through the Midwest after the Democratic Convention in New York four years ago.

The front two-thirds of the train comprise the most modern rolling stock America can muster. The rear of the train boasts two polished and majestic period carriages. These are the cars that provided the backdrop for the whistle-stop campaigns that Thomason and Engelberg are so keen to evoke. For candidates in the last century, the train provided a vital means of making contact with the voters. Abraham Lincoln toured the country by rail in 1860 on trains more basic than this. President Roosevelt had a car personally built for his peregrinations around the country. Most famous of all, however, are the monochrome images of Harry Truman travelling some 30,000 miles by train during his come-from-behind campaign against Thomas Dewey in 1948.

Mr Clinton's accommodation on this trip is the Georgia 300, used by President Roosevelt for his visits from Washington to his favourite retreat, Warm Springs, Georgia. Most importantly, it has that small platform at the back, adorned with patriotic bunting, upon which the President can stand as the train pulls out of its every stop. And just so that no one misses the point, the slogan of the journey is a groan-inducing pun: this President has put America on the right track.

Clinton bandwagon, page 6