Clinton makes the crowd believe, but not in Gore

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The Independent US

The crowd was delirious. Their hero had just stepped up on the stage, under a large banner promising a better future, and they could not contain their enthusiasm. With one voice they were shouting: "No son of a Bush! No son of a Bush!" Just for a moment, surveying the predominantly African-American faces basking in the warm glow of the Californian autumn sun, you could have believed that the Democrats were cruising towards yet another crushing victory in the race for the White House.

The crowd was delirious. Their hero had just stepped up on the stage, under a large banner promising a better future, and they could not contain their enthusiasm. With one voice they were shouting: "No son of a Bush! No son of a Bush!" Just for a moment, surveying the predominantly African-American faces basking in the warm glow of the Californian autumn sun, you could have believed that the Democrats were cruising towards yet another crushing victory in the race for the White House.

But the man on the podium, here in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, was not the presidential candidate, Al Gore. It was the man whose job he aspires to take over, his boss Bill Clinton, and victory is far from assured.

All that enthusiasm, it became clear, was tinged with a heavy dose of elegiac regret. President Clinton may be a master campaigner and charmer extraordinaire, but the fact is he is not running - he cannot run for a third term under the US constitution - and his appearance just days before the election felt more like a farewell than a full-blooded rally for his deputy.

"Four more years!" the crowd shouted. "Repeal the 22nd Amendment!" read one prominently displayed banner. Whenever Mr Clinton's name was mentioned there were roars; Mr Gore's name, in stark contrast, rarely received more than polite applause.

"Al Gore ain't no Bill Clinton. I feel so sorry he can't run again." Such were the sentiments heard from several people in the 8,000-strong crowd.

Even though the occasion was supposed to be a "get out the vote" rally, several people admitted privately that they might not vote for Mr Gore at all.

"I don't want people to assume that just because I'm African-American I'm going to vote Democrat," said Tianna Quarles, an investment banker who said she was seriously considering a vote for George W Bush. "If Clinton were running again it would be a different matter. This guy's my hero." Mr Clinton himself was a little off peak form. His face was drawn and his voice sounded tired. It even became apparent he did not know exactly where he was - making several references to Watts, a much poorer, traditionally African-American neighbourhood some 10 miles to the south of the shopping mall plaza where he was speaking.

He has had to struggle to have any role in the election campaign at all, being told by Mr Gore's handlers he should stay out of the key swing states in the Midwest for fear of alienating moderates turned off by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Mr Gore has vowed all along to run as his "own man"; seeing Mr Clinton in action - even a subdued Mr Clinton - one could see the merit of the argument that the Vice-President did not wish to be overshadowed.

In a tight 20-minute speech, Mr Clinton eloquently laid out the case for Mr Gore in ways that seem to elude his deputy on the campaign trail. He couched his argument in a series of questions, to which there could only be one answer.

Was the country better off now than eight years ago? Did people want the prosperity to continue? Did people want to keep building "one America" without racial or class divides? Mr Clinton neatly skewered Mr Bush's own claims to inclusiveness and tolerance, listing such issues as a hate crimes statute, legislation on equal pay for women, and defence of abortion rights by the Supreme Court - all of which Mr Gore supports but which runs counter to Mr Bush's programme.

He also undermined Mr Bush's stated desire to create bipartisanship in Washington.

"We have a bipartisan majority in Congress right now for a patient's bill of rights ... but the Republican leaders keep saying no," Mr Clinton charged.

"If this crowd stays in, we're going to need someone [in the White House] to stop their more extremist actions." Mr Clinton had generous, if not loudly trumpeted, words of praise for his deputy, saying he had accomplished more in the Vice-President's office than anyone in history. "He has the experience. He understands the future... He is a good man who makes good decisions, and with your help he will make a great president of the United States."

The performance inadvertently highlighted one of Mr Gore's biggest liabilities on the campaign trail, his reluctance to run on the record of the past eight years for fear of tarnishing himself with the scandal-tinged aspects of the Clinton administration.

Mr Clinton and the small army of Californian Democrats who preceded him on the podium came out with a flurry of good lines Mr Gore could have used, but has not dared to.

Art Torres, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, described Mr Bush's candidacy as a Trojan horse, looking benign but containing a bellyful of Republican extremism.

One big banner behind the stage proclaimed: "Californians Adore Gore." Unfortunately for the Vice-President, it was the one insincere note of the whole occasion.

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