Clinton's speech hits jackpot in Middle America

IT WAS here, in rural Middle America, that they fringed the cornfields last July to watch Candidate Bill Clinton come by on his first campaign bus tour. In this small town yesterday, they lined the streets again, huddled in cars parked along the hard shoulder.

In the mid-winter cold, the people of Chillicothe - an Indian word for 'principal town' - were out to see the same man. Now he was President, though, and the bus had become a limousine. But he was campaigning again - trying to sell his bad-tasting medicine for the US economy.

The President's 'event' in town - a question-and-answer session in the local high school - was part of a nationwide effort by the White House to promote the package of spending cuts and tax increases outlined to Congress on Wednesday. In three days, 28 states will receive visits from the President or a cabinet member.

In Chillicothe they were almost too excited about the visit to care about the proposals. Debate was intense over how the wooden stool he would sit on should be preserved for posterity. There was talk even of saving the specially- made stage as an icon of his stay.

'This is better than winning a dollars 20m jackpot,' said Harold Cupp, one of 1,800 people to have won tickets to the event. 'This is a one- time deal. There is nothing like seeing the President in your own small town.'

The town - its 23,000 inhabitants sustained by farming and a paper mill - had clearly been chosen to symbolise what is meant to be honest, down-home America, a million miles from the politics of Washington. And doubtless the rapturous reception, relayed by television nationwide, satisfied the President and his advisers.

Like thousands of other such communities it is also conservative, however. Yesterday's Chillicothe Gazette carried an advertisement from the religious right denouncing homosexuality. The news store on Main Street displays a warning about an issue of Sports Illustrated featuring women's swimwear fashions. Unlike Ohio state, Chillicothe did not vote for Mr Clinton.

Mr Clinton took the first few minutes of his school appearance to argue, plainly but passionately, that Americans had no choice but to accept some hardship to begin conquering the federal deficit. The Reagan-Bush status quo is not an option, he said again. 'The price of doing the same thing will be higher than the price of doing what I am asking.' On the whole, his audience seemed convinced.

Mid-way through the session, the President was reminded of the depth of rural conservatism. Tim, a pupil in his last year, challenged Mr Clinton to explain how abortion could be acceptable. 'Do you think women who have them should be charged with first- degree murder?', the President asked. 'Yes, I do,' the boy said.

It led to a refreshingly combative five minutes of argument, during which many were shifting on their seats. 'You may smile with all your self-confidence, young man, but there are many in the church who would disagree with you,' the President said.

In the warmth of Frisch's Big Boy Restaurant and Drive Thru at breakfast time, the patrons offered a fairly homogenous view of the economic proposals. They don't like new taxes, they are suspicious about the money being misspent, but mostly they are willing to let Mr Clinton try.

'I don't like it but if that's what it takes to get everything balanced again, then that's OK,' said Tom Brown, a retired police officer. Tom Adams, also retired, was more wary. 'I think that Clinton should be dealing with the things that really need to be dealt with before looking for tax increases,' he said. 'Things are not going the way I thought they would, but I'm still keeping an open mind. I'd still vote for him, I think.'