Americans cheer great Bill Clinton railway show

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They called it "The 21st Century Express" but the "Hello There Slow Coach" would be more appropriate. The trainbearing Bill Clinton to the Democratic Convention in Chicago mostly creeps along and, for a good part of the time, the President likes to stand on the rear platform greeting anyone along the route.

And people there are. These are not the open fields of Wisconsin where, as one veteran reporter recollects, in 1976 the then President Gerry Ford, after a martini or two in his carriage on a whistle-stop tour of his own, started to regale the cows - for cows and fields were all that could be seen.

For residents along this one-track rail corridor through north-western Ohio it is as if a national holiday has been declared. Every level crossing, every back garden, every small-town junction is transformed into a Norman Rockwell tableau. Whole families, with their deck-chairs, picnic blankets and their children's little red wagons, have waited for our train to roll by. While local sheriffs stand to attention with their left hands raised in salute, the crowds wave their banners and press their video-recorder buttons, all against a heartland backdrop of corn fields and grain elevators.

Gilded by the sun of a perfect summer's day, these are moving scenes - even for the most cynical heart. And when the train halts and we disembark for one more train-side rally, the President gives the impression at least, of being stirred himself. His gives his speech - tedious to those of us who have heard it so many times before in the day - and then descends into the crowds, to practise again the art he has mastered so brilliantly of mixing with the sea of outstretched hands, offering a word to each person he meets.

While many of us remember the bus trips the then candidate Clinton took with Al Gore through this same territory four years ago, this is an altogether more sophisticated operation. Like the old circus trains, what we are riding on here is, to be sure, the greatest campaign show on earth. But Mr Clinton is the President and these carriages are doubling as a rolling White House, complete with Oval Office, offices for the staff, press room and, most critically, all the national security paraphernalia that must accompany the President.

What, for example, I ask one close aide to Mr Clinton, is that other train doing following half- a-mile behind us? Hadn't all normal traffic on this route been suspended for the day? "Oh, that train back there," he begins cautiously. "The secret service has asked us not to talk about that stuff. But I understand there is enough [weaponry] on that train to start a small war".

The next car is what the staff have christened "technoworld". Jammed into every available space in a converted panorama car there are phone banks, computers and the hardware to maintain a satellite up-link to the world outside. Speech-writers toil over word processors, all, presumably, refining paragraphs of what will be the President's speech to the convention tomorrow evening.

Move further forward and you reach the briefing room and events car. "An excellent location for a briefing by the press secretary, don't you think?" says Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, as we rumble past one more beanfield. "Yup", one reporter replies, "this briefing is really moving along". The journalists - all 150 of us - then occupy the front four double-decker coaches.

In Arlington, Bowling Green, and at our other stops along our Ohio route, the crowds are aware of none of this. They did not notice even that in speeches delivered at noon and at three in the afternoon the President, aware that his words were being recorded for retransmission at the Chicago convention hall later in the evening, referred repeatedly to "tonight" as if it were the moon, not the sun, that was beating on our heads. (And some say he is a fraud.) They only see what they were meant to see: a campaign spectacular of promises and bunting-clad patriotism.

"I shook his hand twice," said one thrilled grandmother. "I swear I'm not going to wash my hands for six months".