The girls lean forward on their knees, looking up at the stage. They are wearing white blouses and blue slacks, and bright red ribbons that say REAGAN in white letters.
Their home-permed curls are crushed beneath straw hats that repeat his name in blue letters. In each hand, they hold a pom-pom.
Their incredibly young faces uncreased by care, unmarked by worry follow the candidate's every word with unblinking devotion.
Ronald Reagan stands above them flanked by an American flag and a local politician. He is wearing a blue-black houndstooth jacket reminiscent of a '40s dance band or a '50s bar mitzvah. On his right lapel he wears a white rose surrounded by baby's breath. His dark hair glistens under the shopping center lights.
He is in one of those shopping centers that has destroyed 10 acres of countryside greenery to recreate 10 acres of countryside greenery. There are trees and plants, walkways of fake brick and lighting that conveys a faint Main Street, good-old-days air.
Reagan is concluding his speech. "I just hope," he says, pointing down to the crouching girls in front of him, "that these children will know the freedom we once knew."
The applause is warm. Members of the crowd hold up signs reading, "Thank You For Opposing ERA." A 4-year-old girl, sitting petitely on a chair, waves a sign saying, "We Love Ronnie," back and forth over her head with two hands.
The Collinsville High School Band strikes up "When the Saints Go Marching in." People cheer, and press close to the restraining ropes to shake his hand. He works the crowd slowly, enjoying the crush.
Although Reagan left Illinois more than 45 years before, he likes it here, and in a sense he is home. His speech works, the laughs work, the lines work, the theme works.
And the theme these days is good times for all.
"How many times has Jimmy Carter come before us and acted as if this economy were our fault," he says. "As if it were some kind of plague that came out of the air because you and I, we're spending too much, we're buying too many things, we're living too well.
"Carter says we've got to get used to austerity and sharing and scarcity, and give up luxury," Reagan says. "Well, I don't believe that! I think we should cover our children's ears when they hear that kind of talk!"
And who could be a more perfect candidate to sell this? This guy is happy. Let others should you how the glass is half empty. Ronald Reagan will show you how it is half full and will promise to fill it up until it slops over on your shoes.
He says he wants to slash the budget, and the applause is tremendous.
He says he wants to increase military spending, and the crowd goes wild.
He says he wants to stop inflation, and he brings down the house.
He says he wants more luxury, and everyone cheers. What the heck. Why not more guns and butter? And not only guns, but the biggest guns, the best guns. And butter? We're talking the high-priced spread, prosperity like you've never seen.
Why not? Let others promise you less: Ronald Reagan promises you more.
"The president is trying to tell you we're energy poor!" he shouts. "He's trying to tell you to give up driving or drive less or dial down your thermostat or turn it off or wear blankets!"
The audience is laughing with him now at that crazy ol' Jimmy Carter. What an old lady that guy is!
"We're not energy poor," Reagan tells them. "We're rich. Rich!"
What, us worry? Not us. Not America. We've got so much, why, if big government would just get out of our way, the goodies would flow from the cornucopia like milk and honey.
And it goes over here. He shakes hand after hand, the press trailing along behind.
And when we go back to the press bus, there, next to the driver is a plastic garbage pail filled with ice and studded with glorious cans of Stag and Budweiser beer. Cans so glistening and cold that the beads of water on them look like dew on a mountain flower.
And on each of our seats, a box lunch of fried chicken! With cole slaw and potato salad and a shiny red apple. And do we tear into it! Fifty reporters rippin' into that old chicken, sippin' down the suds, and lookin' and noddin' at each other with big, greasy smiles.
And it strikes me that we have found a metaphor for the Reagan campaign.
Ronald Reagan For the Good Life!