Clinton passes the torch on to his heir apparent

As the President vigorously defends his eight years in office, demonstrations outside the conference hall turn sour
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The Independent US

President Clinton formally passed the torch of the Democratic Party's presidential hopes to his Vice President yesterday at a ceremony in the small town of Munroe in the electorally crucial state of Michigan.

President Clinton formally passed the torch of the Democratic Party's presidential hopes to his Vice President yesterday at a ceremony in the small town of Munroe in the electorally crucial state of Michigan.

The handover, modelled on the symbolic passing of the baton from President Ronald Reagan to George Bush in 1988, was intended to launch Al Gore as leader of his party and president in waiting as the year-long election campaign enters its final lap. But any idea that a mere ceremony could invest Mr Gore with Mr Clinton's natural authority and ease in leadership was dispelled in Los Angeles just hours before, when the massed ranks of Democrats raised the roof of the Staples Stadium to give Mr Clinton a hero's farewell. Packed to the roof of the vast arena, they cheered, clapped, yelled and stamped their feet to acclaim the man they credit with restoring the credibility of their party and the fortunes of the country.

And Mr Clinton responded with a speech that gave them everything they could have wished, and more: a rousing defence of his eight years in office, a rapier attack on the Republican platform and record and generous testimonials for his Vice President and would-be heir and for his wife and would-be senator. With his voice breaking, he inserted into his final lines the only half-acknowledgement of the personal scandal that tarnished his presidency. "Remember," he said, borrowing the words of the Fleetwood Mac song to ask his audience to choose his successor wisely, "whatever you think about me, keep putting people first. And don't stop thinking about tomorrow."

Sometimes imperious, sometimes rueful, sometimes humourous, but always the master politician, Mr Clinton reminded Democrats of the depressed state of the country when he became president and the Republican opposition to his recipe for recovery.

He noted his programme was opposed by every single Republican in Congress and that Mr Gore cast the deciding vote to pass the legislation through the Senate.

"[Republican] leaders said it would increase the deficit, kill jobs and give us a one-way ticket to recession," he said. "Time has not been kind to those predictions." Listing the record surplus, the low crime and unemployment rates as signal achievements of his - and Mr Gore's - administration, he said: "That's the record. As that LA detective Joe Friday used to say: 'Just the facts, Ma'am.'"

The audience chanted, "we won't go back", and, "thank you, Bill, thank you, Bill", waving a forest of "thank-you" placards. The chants appeared to have been orchestrated to pre-empt another chant that had threatened to catch on after the first mention of the Clinton name earlier in the evening: "Eight more years!"

Mr Clinton offered Mr Gore his most unconditional testimonial so far, describing him as "a profoundly good man", "thoughtful and hard working" and "one strong leader" - all accolades designed to address the specific doubts that have been voiced about Mr Gore's fitness for the highest office.

Mrs Clintonpreceded her husband at the podium to an almost equally ecstatic reception. In her only allusion to the Lewinsky affair, she thanked Democrats "for your faith and support in good times" - and here she paused - "and bad". The hall hushed, before erupting in cheers.

Now the spotlight passes, with the Democratic leadership torch, to Mr Gore. The only question yesterday was whether the power of Mr Clinton's speech and the ecstatic reception it received had successfully launched Mr Gore as heir apparent - or made his task of establishing himself more difficult.

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