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Pennsylvania, where Clinton campaigned Monday with Kerry, is one of about 10 battleground states.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/25/2004 6:15:16 PM ET 2004-10-25T22:15:16

They mapped Bill Clinton's path to the stage in Center City so that he wouldn't have to climb too many stairs, which was thoughtful, because he looked like what he was: a guy who had had quadruple bypass surgery only a few weeks ago. The shock of light-gray hair was familiar, as was the ironic, world-weary smile; as was the European cut suit. But he was so skinny that he didn't fill it out, and his skin was sallow, and his long sculpted fingers looked as though they had been painted by El Greco. When he spoke, his voice was reedier, thinner and more tentative than we remember: no anger, no volume and no Lewinsky-era drama.

Still, in eight minutes in front of a crowd of 80,000 Democrats that stretched from City Hall to 17th Street, the former president summarized the case against George Bush and for John Kerry better than Kerry himself has ever done, with more humor, concision and bite. Among the pundits, the assumption was that Clinton had come to town to jack up the black vote, which is true as far as it goes.

But as I listened to Clinton I was reminded of the political genius he possesses to speak to the dispossessed and the comfortable at the same time. His first argument: that Bush and the Republicans had indulged in runaway spending in Washington, which meant that the Japanese and Chinese — who are buying all the T-Bills — will control the fiscal destiny of our children.

Clinton's appeal was shrewdly conservative and flag-waving. He defended Kerry's call for a rollback of Bush's top-rate tax cut as a matter of patriotism: Wealthy folks (he is one of them) should be willing to sacrifice. Kerry, he said, would build a "larger Army" than Bush's and be tougher on al Qaida and homeland defense. With deadpan skill, he called the Republicans "our friends" and then caricatured them as go-it-alone bomb throwers.

Finishing with a flourish, he said that if one side is trying to scare you and playing on fear, and the other side makes you think and offers you hope … you know what to do. Kerry has been selling fear, of course: on the draft, on Social Security, on the war. But you couldn't tell that by listening to the sweet if somewhat enervated reasonableness of William J. Clinton.

The rally was a coup and an inspiration for the Kerry team here in Pennsylvania. This is one of about 10 battleground states, and Kerry has a better chance here than the president. The GOP is well-organized, relying on the war and conservative values, but the Dems are pumped on the economy and on the idea that Bush is just another Republican who favors the rich.

I hear that Bush will be here three times — only two have been announced. He will do Lancaster, Bucks County near Philly and, I hear, a last stop in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh area, near Election Day, probably on Monday. The Dems are working just as hard, with John Edwards scheduled into Scranton (Hillary Clinton next day, then Scranton native Joe Biden after that) and Kerry due to make at least one more stop. Auditor Bob Casey, who is pro-life and popular, nevertheless is making TV ads for Kerry. It's support that could help in "The T," the middle of the state, as well in conservative Catholic areas of Pittsburgh and Philly.

BUSH VS. KERRY: Comparing the candidates from issue-to-issue.

I'm still waiting for this election to break in a dramatic way. If I sense any movement in any way, and it is slight, it seems to be in Kerry's direction. A light breeze, not a gale. That's the way it felt in Ohio, where I spent two days last week. Bush had been ahead by eight, and went prospecting in other Midwest states, but had to rush back to defend Ohio after the polls narrowed to even there. Did the president get back soon enough?

It's one of the key questions of the election.

Another, of course, Pennsylvania. Kerry needs to come out of Philly with a big margin to compensate for GOP votes elsewhere, in more conservative areas. In 2000, Al Gore won the city by about 340,000. This time, Kerry is hoping for at least 375,000 (that's what Gov. Ed Rendell just told me) or even 400,000 (which is what Rep. Chaka Fattah just told me). If they get to the Fattah number they are going to be hard to beat in the state. Bush is making his big plays in the Northeast and the Southwest — essentially Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and the suburbs and exurbs of Pittsburgh, which are trending Republican on social issues, if not economic ones.

Clinton, meanwhile, is on the move to the extent that his health permits. He is leaving here for Florida, and after that he is going to Nevada. "This is an ambitious schedule for a guy who just had heart surgery," said Rendell.

But it's one that the Dems need.  

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