Clinton rallies the white South

AS BILL CLINTON and Al Gore led their 17-strong convoy of buses through the tobacco country of eastern North Carolina, the two Democratic leaders were in a buoyant mood. Local Democratic leaders told them they would carry this large Southern state by 5-6 per cent; and their fear that Ross Perot's candidacy was gaining momentum dissipated as they heard reports of his accusations that the Republicans had planned to disrupt his daughter's wedding.

Overnight the Clinton staff had crafted a stock response to the Perot affair, which Mr Clinton repeated all day. His Southern accent broadening noticeably, the Governor of Arkansas told crowds of his amazement at such goings on, concluding: 'A few weeks ago Bush accused Perot of investigating his children and now Perot says Bush investigated his children, but I'm only interested in your children and their future.'

This low-key approach seemed to be working. At a town meeting in Winston-Salem, centre of the US cigarette industry, televised live by the CBS morning show, Mr Clinton and Mr Gore stuck to practical issues. Asked to demonstrate his knowledge of the economic problems facing ordinary Americans by giving the price of a pound of hamburger, a pair of jeans, a tank of petrol and a visit to the doctor, Mr Clinton did well.

'Well, gasoline is about dollars 1.20,' he said. 'It depends on what kind of gasoline you get. Hamburger runs a little over dollars 1. A gallon of milk is dollars 2. A loaf of bread is about dollars 1. What it costs to go to the doctor depends on the doctor. I know doctors who charge dollars 15.' This was a little optimistic about hamburgers and doctors, but Mr Clinton had succesfully reinforced his populist credentials.

The message was a little more conservative than further north. Asked about excessive government handouts to the poor, Mr Clinton said: 'If people don't work and they could work, they shouldn't eat.' In North Carolina, questions about welfare for the poor are racially charged since welfare is seen by whites as being largely to the benefit of blacks. Distancing himself from the black community has been a theme of Mr Clinton's campaign but he is unlikely to lose their votes, given black desperation to get rid of the Republicans.

At rallies in Winston-Salem, Durham and the small towns in between, white blue-collar workers were noticeably present. Jim Long, who is running for re-election as insurance commissioner for North Carolina, a powerful local position, said the closure of local textile and furniture factories, large employers in this area, would ensure economic issues determine the vote on 3 November.

Other North Carolina Democrats were less sure. Bertha B Holt, for 17 years state representative for Alamance county, said people in her district have 'been voting Republican (in presidential elections) because of race. Right now they're for Clinton, but who knows what they'll do when they get inside a polling booth.' She dismissed Mr Perot's support. 'A lot of people in my area who support Perot have not voted before. It's a frustration thing.'

There were occasional signs of this frustration along the road. When Mr Clinton and Mr Gore stopped for coffee in Greenboro, a man waved a pro-Perot sign. He said: 'For 40 years I've been voting for the lesser of two evils. My father came here from Russia in 1911 and won a Purple Heart in the First World War even before he could speak English.' He said Mr Perot represented a return to an America not controlled by free- loading politicians, where a hard- working person could make good.

A Clinton strength is the solidarity of local Democratic office- holders with the presidential campaign, in contrast to the last two elections. Their support is important because it makes it more likely that voters will simply press button 1A in the polling booth next week, which gives their vote to all Democratic candidates, rather than select between 159 choices for jobs ranging from the presidency to the post of Soil and Water District Supervisor.

Democrats in North Carolina feel that if they do not win in 1992 they will never carry the state in a presidential election. Thorns Craven, a Democratic lawyer, said: 'What makes me confident is that Bush today is campaigning in a traditionally Republican state like South Dakota . . . while Clinton is in North Carolina. I don't think (Michael) Dukakis was ever here.'

(Photograph omitted)

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