GADSDEN, Ala. -- Two state bodyguards gingerly placed George Wallace in his wheelchair, straightened his limp legs, and rolled him up a ramp to speak from a metal trailer decorated with red, white and blue bunting.
Wallace, 63, promised a cheering blue collar crowd of some 3,000 men, women and children he would be 'the average man's governor' if elected to an unprecedented fourth term.
'One reason I'm running for governor -- in the first place, my health is all right,' said Wallace, showing a little of the fiery spirit that made him a political legend in Alabama.
'You know they say, 'Oh, you're in a wheelchair,'' he shouted in a slightly raspy voice at the outdoor gathering. 'I was governor seven years in a wheelchair, and Franklin Roosevelt was elected four times in a wheelchair.
'I tell you I'll work for you,' Wallace said. 'I'm not paralyzed in the head.'
In a rambling 30-minute off-the-cuff speech sprinkled with dangling and incomplete thoughts, Wallace bragged about his accomplishments during his first three terms and reminded the partisan labor crowd that he ran for president four times.
Wallace attacked federal judges, a familiar cry from his national and state campaigns, accusing them of pampering criminals.
He lambasted Lt. Gov. George McMillan, his opponent in the Sept. 28 Democratic runoff primary, and warned that rich Republicans are spending millions to deny him the distinction of serving as governor longer than any man in Alabama history.
Wallace promised to exploit his national reputation to lure industry to Alabama and reduce the state's unemployment rate, the second highest in the nation at 14.5 percent. He said the jobless rate was only 5.5 percent when he was governor.
'We've come to where we are today,' he said, 'because back in the 70s when I ran for the presidency and was the leading man when I was shot down ... if they had listened to all we advocated in Alabama the country would not be in the shape it's in today.'
Wallace dwelled on his health, trying to convince voters that he is physically fit. He was critically wounded in 1972 by a would-be assassin's bullets as he campaigned for president in Laurel, Md., leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Wallace told an old joke, a trademark of his disjointed speeches, about how he waded into crowds before he was shot and asked children how their parents were getting along.
He said when he asked one little boy about his daddy, the child replied, 'He's dead.' Wallace said he came across the same little boy in the crowd and when he asked his stock question, the child said: 'He's still dead.'
The crowd roared.
'My friends, I want to tell you my health is good,' Wallace said.
Some of the spectators in the crowd, many of them knocked out of work, acknowledged they wanted to see for themselves if Wallace appeared to be physically able to return to office.
'He surprised me,' said Curtis Dover of Ohatchee, who stood in line for the candidate to autograph a 1968 Wallace campaign necktie. 'He looks better than his pictures look. He's got a better grip in his hand than I've got.'
Wallace spoke rapidly as the mid-afternoon sun bore down on Noccalula Falls and Park, a scenic picnic spot alongside what would have been a natural waterfall if the water table had not dropped. Only a trickle ran over the rocks.
Wallace led McMillan in the Sept. 7 Democratic primary, after leaving office in 1979 because he could not succeed himself. And if he wins the nomination in the runoff, Wallace will face conservative Republican Emory Folmar, the mayor of Montgomery, in the Nov 2 general election.
With his white, short-sleeved shirt rolled up on his biceps and perspiration beaded above his bushy eyebrows, Wallace attacked his Democratic opponent, who was not invited to the 'Salute to Labor' program.
He misrepresented, whether intentional or not, some of McMillan's campaign positions.
Wallace accused McMillan of saying the school prayer amendment, apparently referring to the legislation in Congress, was 'a joke,' and promised to repeal a 'good time' law that McMillan sponsored to shorten inmates' prison terms.
McMillan, a 38-year-old progressive 'New South' candidate, said the way the Legislature went about passing Alabama's voluntary school prayer law was 'a joke,' but he said he believed in prayer. His 'good time' law was revised in 1980, making it impossible for inmates serving at least 10 years to qualify for incentive 'good' time.
'I don't believe a candidate for the Democratic Party can beat the Republican Party who makes the statement that I don't believe in prayer in public schools and that prayer amendment is a joke,' Wallace bellowed. 'I don't think it's a joke.'