The US Presidential Elections: Clinton plays to the Midwest as he goes wooing: The Democratic lead narrows amid hectic campaigning as the US presidential candidates roar into the home straight

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GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN - It was one of the great moments in American musical history: a Wisconsin dairy farmer singing 'Danny Boy' (off-key), accompanied by yelping farm dogs and the presumptive next leader of the free world on the tenor saxophone (also off-key).

Bill Clinton, the politician-saxophonist, and Bill Clancy, the farmer tenor, performed from a hay cart in Mr Clancy's farmyard. They played to a huge, amiable crowd, which had cluttered every dirt-track for two miles with cars and pick-up trucks.

Governor Clinton had enormous fun at the weekend on a swing through the Midwest (six states in two days). But is he really the presumptive next President of the United States, eight days from the election? Does he now look merely presumptuous?

Six national opinion polls, published yesterday and today, show the Democrat's lead - which ranged from 12 to 17 points a week ago - reduced to between 5 and 12 points. The Clinton lead is still comfortable but approaching the margin of polling error and vulnerable to any continuing surge by President Bush or Ross Perot.

In the face of the first real shift in numbers in weeks, the Clinton camp is relaxed. Paul Begala, Mr Clinton's senior strategist and chief speech-writer, gives a seminar on the polls on a runway in Green Bay, Wisconsin. 'It is a natural tightening, and then easing, a kind of grand sphincter effect,' he says. 'You see it in almost all presidential races.'

The Clinton crowds throughout the Midwest were huge and reached a level of emotion not seen in Democratic presidential crowds for years. Governor Clinton is no Charlie Parker and he is no Cicero. He tends to gabble. He speaks like his saxophone playing, unevenly hitting the emotional chords he stretches for. But he gave a series of energetic, effective, at times moving, speeches, growing in intensity as the troubling polling figures flowed in.

As the weekend progressed, his tone became more populist, more pleading, more combative and more negative (bashing President Bush for the Iraq and Iran arms scandal allegations). But even at his most aggressive, he is 80 per cent positive, covering his ideas on health-care, education and job creation. (President Bush's stump speech is, by contrast, 80 per cent negative, warning the nation not to trust Mr Clinton).

Mr Clinton calls himself a 'new Democrat' devoted to invest-and- grow, not tax-and-spend. But he also communes with the spirits of Democratic ancestors from the times before Vietnam, race and sexual politics made everything trickier. He mentions Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, but especially Jack Kennedy, even addressing crowds as 'my fellow Americans' as JFK did.

His best performance was at an airship hangar in Akron, Ohio, as big as an Appalachian foothill. The chants of 'We want Bill' ricocheted from the immense ceiling, making the crowd of 20,000 sound 10 times its size. 'My fellow Americans,' Mr Clinton concluded. 'We can do better. Imagine what you are going to feel like if you wake up on 4 November and the newspapers read 'Four more years'. Stay with me. Fight on. Together we can show what we can all do for our country. Fight fear. We are on a mission of hope.'

Mr Begala predicts that the parabola of the polls will follow that of 1980 - also a three-horse race - when the numbers tightened in the last week, then broke in favour of the mainstream party candidate of change, Ronald Reagan. But there are other parallels. In 1968, another three-way campaign, when the quasi-incumbent Hubert Humphrey, given up for dead, surged and just failed to beat Richard Nixon.

The two great unknowns, Clinton officials admit, are the invisible effect of the drip-drip of negative television advertising on Mr Clinton's credibility and the stamina of Mr Perot. It looks like a thrilling final week.

NEW YORK - Several leading US newspapers endorsed Bill Clinton for president yesterday, including the New York Times and the New York Daily News, Reuter reports.

For the Daily News, one of the largest circulation newspapers in the country, it was the first endorsement of a Democrat since 1940, when it backed Franklin Roosevelt's fourth term.

(Photograph omitted)