US ELECTIONS: Clinton talks the language of history

`When they shut the government I thought about the Alamo. I would not give in,' roared the President
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Those nightmare-haunted members of Bill Clinton's Secret Service detail, charged with keeping the leader of America and the free world out of harm's way, have discerned a new threat to their man. They call it "scratching".

Everyone knows this President adores plunging into crowds. These days, on his electoral progress around the country, he doesn't so much shake hands, but holds forth his arms for people to grab, like life rafts for shipwreck survivors. "I touched him three times. Three times, would you believe," Lebene Ohene, a Ghanaian-American worker county employee said in ecstasy after a rally in Las Vegas last Thursday, as Mr Clinton worked the lines for fully 40 minutes.

It can be risky. In El Paso the next day, he leant so far that his feet became entangled with the bottom rope and the Secret Servicemen had to prevent him falling over. But that doesn't keep the "scratchers" at bay. They are the ultimate souvenir hunters, content not merely to touch their target, but to take a piece of him home, in the form of a tiny fleck of skin.

Beyond that, if anxiety exists in the Presidential entourage at an eleventh- hour narrowing in the polls, it has been scarcely visible.

In this seven-day swing across the country, the crowds have been large - as at the heavily Hispanic New Mexico town of Las Cruces on Friday evening when at least half the local population of 70,000 turned out to see him.

"Su voto es su voz," said a huge banner by the podium, reflecting the main concern of the White House at this late stage of the game: that, whether from boredom with an election that has seemed a foregone conclusion for months or from disgust with the seamy campaign finance shenanigans that have been making headlines for days, people will simply not bother to turn out on Tuesday.

But a good show can help. On an exhilaratingly crisp evening, Las Cruces was a floodlit fiesta beneath pines and plane trees of the local university campus, warmed by a high school band playing "La Bamba" and the "Macarena".

Not to be kept out of the spirit of things, the President began with a few words in what seemed to be Spanish. What was he talking about, I asked a colleague from the Spanish news agency EFE. "I couldn't understand of a word of it," she said.

But no matter. In English also, Mr Clinton can be incomprehensible - not the words that gush forth in an unstoppable tide, but the point he's trying to convey. Suddenly, for instance, he will switch from the 300- year-old blood feuds of "my ancestors in Ireland" to the miracles of modern science.

"We know there are two genes which cause breast cancer," he told a Hallowe'en night crowd in Oakland, California ... "We know that for the first time in history laboratory animals with their lower spines completely severed have shown movement in their lower limbs because of nerve transplants from other parts of their body." What on earth has this to do with Bob Dole and November 5. Then you realise. The operative word is history. This is a President seeking his place in history, a link between America past and the America to come.

In Arizona, he seeks the mantle of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, enlightened Republicans both. Here on the old Texas frontier he addresses 10,000 or more in front of a certain white-washed and well-known church in the middle of San Antonio. Mr Clinton, though, is deep into history as he talks about the winter's budget battle with modern-day Republicans.

Wasn't the episode a case study in White House manoeuvring, guided by the nightly tracking polls? Not a bit of it. "When they shut the government I thought about the Alamo. I wouldn't give in," the President roared. Over his grey-white coiff, for an instant, hovered Davey Crockett's coon- skin cap.

And then into the crowds and doubtless more "scratching" before the show rolled on: to Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, all in the space of 36 hours, in the hope of picking up a traditionally Republican state, or helping a threatened Democratic Congressional candidate. At the end of it surely lies Mr Clinton's own victory. But unlike the crowds which have flocked to him, that victory now may ring strangely empty.