Hoarse partisans called out "eight more years." Suburban moms turned giddy and waited in long lines just to touch his hand.
It was, in short, a rock-star-scale reception as former president Bill Clinton made high-profile campaign appearances Monday evening and Tuesday in South Florida aimed at inspiring Democrats to elect Sen. John F. Kerry president next week. Clinton, looking thin and somewhat weary six weeks after heart-bypass surgery, donned a white yarmulke before addressing a packed synagogue in Palm Beach County on Tuesday. He spread his arms wide the night before as he strolled onstage to the hip-hop groove of Outkast's "Hey Ya" outside the Miami government center building that was the scene of some of the pivotal moments of the disputed 2000 presidential election.
Clinton's appeal in this state, which he won in 1996 but narrowly lost to George H.W. Bush in 1992, is undeniable. Democrats hope his popularity among Jewish voters -- a group that President Bush has aggressively courted -- and among black voters will help increase Democratic turnout in what polls show to be an exceedingly close contest for Florida's 27 electoral votes.
Clinton opted for a mocking tone and knowing smiles over heated rhetoric as he made a case for unseating Bush. In both appearances, the former president highlighted recent reports of missing explosives in Iraq to ridicule Bush's television ads featuring wolves as symbolic terrorists and accusing Kerry of being weak on terrorism.
"I was wondering if the wolves were smelling the explosives out of that dump," Clinton told the audience gathered under the chandeliers at the B'nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton. He invoked the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam, healing the world, to tout Kerry's promise to improve relationships with nations that Democrats say were alienated by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But Clinton also promised that Kerry would take a strong stance on protecting Israel, and would ensure that Israel retains "qualitative military superiority."
"You can take it to the bank," he said to rousing cheers.
Clinton praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza, saying he hoped the proposal -- which the Knesset approved Tuesday -- was being ratified as he spoke. The appeals to Jewish voters are considered all the more important because the Bush administration appears to have made inroads in this traditionally Democratic constituency in South Florida, home to hundreds of thousands of Jews. Some Jews here see Kerry as less of a known quantity on Israel, despite favorable ratings from Jewish groups. Several speakers stressed those ratings Tuesday, including Kerry's brother, Cameron Kerry, who converted to Judaism.
"Bush did good for Israel, very good," Nat Butters, 74, a Boca Raton property manager and Kerry supporter, said as he waited for Clinton to arrive onstage. "There's no denying it."
In Miami, Clinton's appearance placed him in front of a key demographic: Hispanic voters. He was introduced by Hialeah Mayor Raul L. Martinez (D), who was dubbed "the Big Cubano" by former House member Carrie Meek. Signs reading "Cubanos con Kerry" were held high for the television cameras before Clinton took the stage. Cuban Americans, still considered a stronghold for Republicans, have been identified for possible conversion by Democrats hoping to capitalize on complaints about the Bush administration's new rules limiting family visits to the island.
Clinton, who has long enjoyed great popularity in Miami, especially among blacks, stirred the crowd by defending Kerry against GOP accusations that he changes positions on issues to suit his political needs.
"Only a very foolish person goes all the way through life and never changes positions on anything in the face of new evidence," he said. "If you live in a world where you can't kill, jail or occupy all your enemies, you're going to have to have some friends," he said.
Rosetta Hylton, 57, a nurse from Hialeah, threw her hands into the air at Clinton's remarks. "He's so fine, so charismatic," she said. "I would vote for him again. That's one rule I'd like to change."
Clinton told the audiences in Boca Raton and Miami that his appearances were good for his recovery and he left the bimah, the reading platform at the Boca Raton synagogue, with a symbolic gift of appreciation: a crystal heart.