Whistle-stop Clinton sets pace on Route 54: David Usborne, in Vandalia, Illinois, finds the Democrats exploiting the values of old-style election campaigning

SOMEWHERE on the road to Vandalia, deep in the American heartland, Bill Clinton became the candidate he was meant to be. Vigorous and inspirational, he was drawing out supporters in multitudes. And, in a rare and emotional communion between people and politics, they dropped all reserve and, for one night at least, gave him their hearts.

This was south-central Illinois, the last stretch on the eight-state bus tour that has borne Mr Clinton and his running-mate, Al Gore, across the Midwest from last week's Democratic convention in New York finally yesterday to a 40,000 strong rally in St Louis, Missouri. There, in the cornfields and rural communities, the carefully laid campaign production surpassed even its own script.

And script there was. The journey, dubbed the 'First Thousand Miles', was sketched out in advance in fine detail, Hollywood- style, by Mort Engelberg, producer, appropriately, of such hit road-movies as Smokey and the Bandit and Easy Rider. Sometimes the props were all too obviously planted - the straw-bales for the candidates to sit on, the pick-up trucks piled with locally grown produce and the ubiquitous stars- and-stripes flags.

But the response of the people was beyond stage-management. Between Centralia, at the southern tip of Illinois, and Vandalia, 30 miles north up Route 54, the scenes were redolent of cover pictures from Life in the Fifties. One family, baby dressed in nothing but a nappy, stood in a field of weeds just for the chance to wave as the mile-long caravan rushed by. Another was crammed on the roof of an ageing combine harvester. For mile upon mile they lined the road.

In Centralia, the candidates performed the same, rousing, double act we had seen at so many stops before. First, Mr Gore takes to the podium - this time an upturned loudspeaker - to warm up the audience. And then Mr Clinton himself. Arms flung wide, he manages to look like a man aching to hug every person present. Here, like everywhere on the tour, he ends his speech with a long wander through the throng, shaking hands, listening to personal stories. Some reach out just to touch him, as if he were a film star, and shriek with uncontained rapture when they do.

When he speaks, Mr Clinton adopts a quieter tone than his partner, slowly building his message of hope, slipping in the attacks on George Bush, and appealing to all the old symbols of American patriotism and humanist values. 'I must tell you of the pain I feel in my heart when I come to a town like this and I see the energy and the light in your eyes and know that you have not been given the chance to live up to your potential,' he tells Centralians.

Centralia was a planned event. Ten miles further on, even Mr Engelberg was unprepared for the reception that met the caravan in the tiny settlement of Sandoval. More than a thousand people had been waiting for five hours to show their support.

Together, the candidates climbed on to the roof of the Cadillac that had accompanied them from New York. 'When we are old men, Al Gore and I will still remember this crowd in Sandoval,' Mr Clinton began.

Finally in Vandalia, at 10.30pm and two hours behind schedule, the candidates were welcomed by a crowd of 11,000 - nearly twice the town's population. Standing before what was once the state capitol building of Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln began his career as a state legislator, Mr Gore and Mr Clinton reached levels of oratory neither had approached in New York. 'Lincoln would be turning in his grave to think of what George Bush and Dan Quayle have done to the Republican Party and the United States of America,' Mr Clinton declared.

When it was over, Tom Isaacs, 63, a farmer, trembled with emotion. 'Makes you feel like when JFK was running. It gets you right here,' he said punching at his heart. Barbara Dogget, a grandmother, had worked her 12-hour day in a plastics factory, reading a library book on JFK's assassination in her breaks. 'Nothing like this has happened since Kennedy,' she said. In interview after interview, Mr Clinton and President Kennedy are compared.

With the Clinton-Gore two- man show and with the on-the- road concept especially, the Democrats believe they have hit a dream campaign formula which Mr Bush cannot emulate. Other bus journeys are being planned, perhaps first through California.

In spite of the euphoria, boosted by polls putting their candidate almost 30 points in the lead, Clinton staff remain cautious. 'This has gone better than we dared to hope, but let's wait. There are 15 weeks until the election and I don't know if we can sustain it. And the Republicans are going to come at us now,' said Dee Dee Myers, Mr Clinton's press secretary.

But if the next president is Bill Clinton, the New York-St Louis bus tour may become a piece of political history, when old-style campaigning was rediscovered.

(Photograph omitted)