Upbeat Clinton sets sail on tide of optimism

Shrugging off the scandal which forced out a top aide, and proclaiming to a delirious convention that "hope was back in America", President Bill Clinton headed off for a bus trip through key swing states - kicking off a final nine weeks of all-out campaigning for a second term in the White House.

"Let us go out to the American people with confidence, hope and honest humility" at the challenges ahead, Mr Clinton told party workers as he left Chicago yesterday. "We are on the right track, we're going to do it together." But he warned against any complacency at his big lead in the polls: "It's not over till it's over, this contest is only starting."

By his often dazzling standards on the podium, the President's acceptance speech the previous evening was solid but not spectacular - a blend of lofty language and modest proposals centred on help with higher education fees, aid for families with children and home-sellers, and $3.4bn of tax breaks for employers who take on workers previously on welfare.

Arguing in so many words that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", Mr Clinton listed his achievements and presented himself as the man of the future. "We do not need a bridge to the past," the President said, implicitly underlining the generation gap with his 73-year-old Republican challenger Bob Dole. He drew together his themes of family, diversity, and opportunity into a vision of a "strong, united American community" as the country advanced into the new millennium.

The shadow, of course, is the Dick Morris affair - inconsequential in itself but reminding voters of the sleaze and "character" doubts which have dogged Mr Clinton throughout his presidency. It also obscured what otherwise would have been a convention-week propaganda coup: news that GDP surged 4.8 per cent in the second quarter, the strongest growth since early 1994 and which makes a mockery of Mr Dole's central assertion that the economy is so weak that only a massive tax cut can revive it.

The Republican candidate's "risky" $550bn scheme would simply bring higher interest rates and higher debt, and ultimately send the economy back into recession. Why "bet the country" on the failed policies of the 1980s? "Do we want to weaken the bridge to the 21st century ?" Mr Clinton asked, using a metaphor that featured a dozen times in his hour-long address. "No," came an answering roar from delegates in the United Center sports arena.

Earlier though, those same delegates had been stunned and appalled as word spread of the disgrace of a man who until his shotgun resignation that morning had been the President's chief political adviser, and prime mover behind the centrist strategy that has lifted him to a commanding lead over Mr Dole.

On Thursday evening, Mr Clinton did not refer directly to Mr Morris, urging only a "campaign of ideas, not a campaign of insults". His advisers are gambling that the scandal around Mr Morris's alleged liaison with a prostitute will leave the President unscathed, and that his rousing speech will exorcise old demons of scandal.

For the moment the polls suggests they are right: Surveys yesterday put the President ahead by 13 to 17 points even before his speech, a margin that would translate into an election landslide. Trailing as they are, however, the Republicans will probably be unable to resist the temptation to revive the Clinton "character" question. "It says something about who you surround yourself with," Mr Dole drily commented, referring to "14 or 15" former aides who had already left the White House under a cloud.

The bus trip, on which the Vice-President, Al Gore, will join Mr Clinton, is a reprise of the hugely successful device after the 1992 convention. It takes them through Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, all closely contested border states which the Democrats would love to carry on 5 November.

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