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OVERFLOW CROWD ROARS APPROVAL

Six years after their campaign bus rolled into town on their idealistic trip to the White House, the battle-scarred Clinton-Gore team returned to Buffalo on Wednesday to a wildly enthusiastic crowd of nearly 22,000 supporters.

For a day, anyway, they made the president forget his troubles in Washington.

Democrats had promised a warm reception for the Clintons and the Gores, based on their heavy vote here in the last two elections and President Clinton's high approval ratings. But no one expected such a boisterous pep rally in packed Marine Midland Arena.

"When we rounded the corner and the curtain parted and we saw this crowd, we all gasped at the same time," Vice President Gore said before delivering a stem-winder of a speech that made people wonder how he got such a wooden image.

"You could see it in their faces," Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga. "They were shocked."

If there was one image transmitted across the nation, it was of an arena filled with people strongly expressing loyalty for the embattled president.

They stood and applauded for 2 1/2 minutes before Clinton began to speak, then interrupted him with another full minute of cheers.

The overflow crowd numbered 21,790, according to Buffalo police, including those who had to watch on television from an adjoining room.

It was the biggest crowd to greet Clinton since his Dec. 19 impeachment by the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. In fact, it was the biggest crowd to hear Clinton since the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

The campaign-style appearances here and later in Norristown, Pa., brought stories in the nation's major newspapers but barely got a mention in Wednesday's major network newscasts.

There were schoolchildren, politicians, people dressed in coats and ties and fancy dresses, and others who came in nylon windbreakers and blue jeans to hear the president and his team.

From the elected officials, community leaders and union chiefs upfront in a VIP section before a stage draped in red, white and blue bunting, to the less coveted seats where high school and elementary school students did the wave while they waited, the Clintons and the Gores were met with continued roars of approval.

The first couples walked hand in hand to the podium as "Hail to the Chief" played in an arena where jerseys of the Buffalo Sabres' French Connection hang from the rafters.

Gore even compared Clinton to Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek at one point, saying Clinton was able to stop bad Republican legislation like the Dominator stops opponents' slapshots.

"I just wish one day they would give me a mask and a few pads," Clinton joked about the political hits he has taken in Washington.

One by one, they came to the microphone -- Tipper Gore, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gore and Clinton -- and each time the crowd rose to its feet and applauded as if no one had ever heard of Monica S. Lewinsky, Kenneth W. Starr, the president's impeachment or a Senate trial that was in session as they spoke.

"Tipper and Al and Hillary and I are sort of like a big family," said Clinton, who looked tired and had heavy bags beneath his eyes. "We love to travel together, and we work well together."

Clinton never mentioned his troubles in Washington, but he pointed out that six years ago to the day -- and almost to the minute -- Wednesday, he and Gore had been sworn-in.

"It has been, to put it mildly, quite eventful," Clinton said of the years since.

The closest any reference came to even touching the president's impeachment problems came -- of all times -- during the invocation delivered by the Rev. Bennett W. Smith, pastor of St. John Baptist Church, an African-American congregation on Buffalo's East Side.

"I represent a community of ministers who are in full support of you and have kept you in our prayers," Mr. Smith said. "You have been the greatest president for our people of all time."

The words were not lost on the president.

"Thank you, Rev. Smith, for that magnificent invocation," Clinton responded during his remarks, "which I will remember all my life."

Clinton seemed to realize that the unstated purpose of his visit -- to show the world the depth and breadth of his support outside of Washington -- was more than accomplished.

At the close of his speech, he shared his thoughts with Buffalo:

"I want to thank you for one of the greatest days of my presidency -- here," he said to a thunderous ovation.

The Clintons and the Gores came here to highlight the agenda Clinton laid out in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night.

Clinton, in a 26-minute address at the arena, showed his strengths as a policy wonk by rattling off figures on the Social Security trust fund while using his talk-show host's ease with the audience.

"I want everybody to understand exactly what I was trying to say last night," he began.

Saving Social Security and Medicare are important not just for senior citizens now, Clinton said, but for his own baby-boomer generation and the new, even bigger group of those younger than 18.

"When we baby boomers retire, there will be a senior boom," Clinton said. "Fifteen years from now, the number of people 65 and older will double. How will we manage this? Our agenda should not put an unbearable burden on our children and their ability to raise our grandchildren."

Clinton sounded like an economics professor as he laid out his plan to shore up Social Security. He would direct most of the $4 trillion in projected budget surpluses over the next 15 years to universal savings accounts or 401(k)-type saving programs.

It won't be popular, he said, referring to Republicans in Congress who want the money to go to tax cuts.

"We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right," he said. "But if you don't, by 2013, the taxes people pay on Social Security will no longer cover the monthly checks. And by 2032, unless we do something, it will be gone.

"But if we save 60 percent of this surplus for Social Security, we can protect Social Security for 55 years. So I think it's a good use for the surplus that will help our parents, and then our children and our grandchildren."

Larry Desautels, 49, an English teacher at Nichols School, said it was not the kind of campaign speech people are used to hearing.

"I thought the audience members felt they were being trusted to understand more than you'd get in a normal campaign speech," he said. "There was much more substance to this."

Former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine of Jamestown said Clinton got his message across even clearer than he did addressing the nation the night before.

"The State of the Union didn't really reflect any priorities, because there were so many proposals," Lundine said. "But today it seemed like they boiled it down. Social Security is one thing they could really get done in his last two years."

Some of the young people in the audience were overwhelmed by Clinton's remarks on Social Security and Medicare.

But Taylor Walsh, 8, a third-grader at Maple West Elementary School in Williamsville, still said Clinton "was my favorite, even if I didn't understand what he was saying, because he is the big cheese."

Gore, who worked himself into a state where he sounded at times like a preacher railing against sin or a Tennessee football coach rallying his team at halftime, challenged the country to respond to overcrowded schools the way that World War II veterans did with building programs and the GI Bill.

Mrs. Gore could not stop smiling as she listened to her husband growl, and even Clinton cracked a joke at Gore's expense.

"Have you ever seen the vice president so fired up?" Clinton asked. "Vice President Gore had very great enthusiasm," said Eric Deiboldt, 14, an eighth-grader at Albion Middle School, "and he sure got the whole crowd here excited."

It was clear that the Clintons and Gores also came here to send a message to Republicans in Washington that the rest of the country -- or least the crowd in the arena -- doesn't agree with their push to drive Clinton from office.

"The message of all this is that the president is doing the job he was elected to do," said Joseph F. Crangle, a former Erie County Democratic chairman. "He's not being distracted by the Republicans in Washington; that's what's important."

From a security standpoint, the entire day went off without a hitch, even as the president waded into the crowd after his speech.

Police said the removal of a loud heckler during Mrs. Clinton's speech was the closest thing to an incident.

An estimated 75 to 100 protesters who stood outside the arena created no problems, said Buffalo Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina.

"The president got into town and out of town with no problems," Diina said. "Larry Cockell, the Secret Service agent in charge of the president's security detail, made a point of telling me how well things were going."

The Clintons and the Gores left the arena in separate Chevrolet Suburbans in the middle of a 37-vehicle motorcade as Buffalo police, state police and Erie County sheriff's deputies provided the escort to a late lunch.

Clinton and his party of 12 -- including County Executive Gorski, Mayor Masiello and Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda -- arrived at Pranzo Ristorante, part of the Radisson Hotel & Suites, across the street from the airport. The president's party sat down to a meal of vegetable and bean soup, and tuna steak with vegetables.

Over lunch, LaFalce said, the president asked Gorski, Masiello and him their thoughts on the main needs of the area. The mayor spoke about education, while the county executive discussed common ideas about welfare reform.

When his turn came, the congressman told Clinton that new border policies with Canada hold the most promise.

"I talked about how Western New York has to maximize its geography with respect to Canada -- our largest trading partner," LaFalce said. "He started something with the shared border accord, but we have to go beyond that. If we can have an almost open border with Canada, that could spur the economic development of the whole area."

The Clintons and the Gores had to board Air Force One and Air Force Two before they could get to the blueberry cheesecake, ice cream and poached pears with caramel sauce.

A friendly crowd greeted the Clintons and the Gores after they traveled across the street to Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Before they left, the Clintons and Gores spoke for about 10 minutes with Lynn Slepian, the widow of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, the Amherst doctor killed by a sniper, and her family.

The president's plane took off at 4:52 p.m. for a rally in Norristown, Pa.

Staff Reporters Patrick LaKamp, Agnes Palazzetti and Dan Herbeck contributed to this article.

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