He was an hour late. So when President Bill Clinton took the stage this afternoon at the Clark County Government Center amphitheater, the crowd acted like starving dogs presented with thick, juicy steak.

"We love you! We love you!" a group of women screamed, drowning out Clinton's opening lines for hundreds of people around them.

The Comeback Kid had come to Las Vegas for his first solo campaign appearance in a swing state since his quadruple-bypass heart surgery, a compliment the crowd of 2,500 was determined to return. They cheered at whatever he said, laughed at the slightest hint of a joke and acted for all the world as though the former president were campaigning for his old job, not playing surrogate for Sen. John F. Kerry.

Clinton, beaming, spoke for about 20 minutes, twice as long as he did in remarks he made with Kerry by his side in Philadelphia on Monday, when he made his first campaign appearance since emergency surgery seven weeks ago.

Pale and thin, his shoulders a little lost in his black suit, and his voice reedy, the former president warned that "this whole election may turn on what happens in Nevada." He focused his speech on the stark differences between "two dramatically strong candidates," sketching out why Kerry would be better on all the major issues facing the country -- health care, the economy, education, foreign dependence on oil, the war in Iraq and homeland security.

He even gave the crowd advice on how to deal with people who "still believe we shouldn't change leaders while we're fighting terror."

"Kerry will do better," he said, describing how the Democratic candidate has a plan to add 40,000 more troops in Iraq, double the size of the Special Forces, increase international cooperation and improve homeland security. "We're not spending any money on homeland security," he said. "You ought to be concerned about that."

Clinton also mentioned the tape of Osama bin Laden that had been released earlier in the day. "He was less threatening than normal," he said of the al Qaeda leader, and he praised President Bush and Kerry for their reactions. "With all the fighting going on, both President Bush and Senator Kerry said, 'Look, we know who you are, and whoever wins, we are not going to be intimidated by you.' " Clinton was scheduled to continue his campaigning in Nevada on Saturday, where he was to give a health care address to a predominantly older audience at a community center in Henderson.

Former president Bill Clinton at a Las Vegas rally for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry.