SOUTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. - President Clinton had three missions in New Jersey on Wednesday: Help the Democrats win back the House, plug Al Gore's run for president and push his own education initiatives through Congress before he leaves the White House.
''All over America, our faculties are better than our facilities,'' Clinton said, standing outside one of eight classroom trailers at Crossroads Middle School, a building that was designed for 1,200 students, but will have 1,650 when classes start after Labor Day.
''You've got the problem of the trailers, and then you've got the problem in our cities of so many old school buildings that either can't be or haven't been modernized. You've got whole floors in some of these schools that are shut down, even though the schools are full to the gills.''
Noting that a record 53 million will enter public and private schools this fall, Clinton criticized Congress for engaging in a philosophical debate about the federal government's role in education instead of approving money to modernize America's schools.
Dot Kohrherr, a social studies teacher at Crossroads, has watched enrollment swell over 15 years.
''The halls are very narrow,'' she said, adding that students are told to leave their backpacks in their lockers, partly because of security and partly to ease congestion in hallways. ''Lunch is tight. Gym is tight. We share rooms. If we want to have an assembly in the auditorium, we have to have two.''
Clinton has requested $25 billion in interest-free modernization bonds for school districts to help build and renovate 6,000 schools nationwide. He also wants Congress to approve $6.5 billion in grants and interest-free loans to make emergency roof, heating, cooling and electrical repairs at 5,000 schools.
Republicans in Congress, who don't want the federal government meddling in local school district affairs, fear Clinton's plan would create unnecessary bureaucracy in Washington. The GOP prefers a tax credit plan like one Clinton vetoed last year when Congress aimed to lower a school district's cost of borrowing money for building projects.
''For the past two years, Congress has sent school construction packages to President Clinton and both times he vetoed them,'' said House Ways and Mean chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas. ''We will try again but I hope this year our schoolchildren come before politics, and that the president will drop his veto pen and pick up an attitude of compromise so we can get this done.''
With education a top concern among voters in this year's presidential election, Clinton also took time to laud Vice President Gore's work to improve the federal student loan program, provide tax credits for college tuition and get 95 percent of schools connected to the Internet - up from 35 percent five years ago.
Clinton spoke at the school before attending two receptions for Democratic congressional candidates. One was to raise $200,000 for Cherry Hill Mayor Susan Bass Levin and the other was to bring in $250,000 for Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.
The Democrats need to win seven congressional seats to gain a majority in the House; five in the Senate.
Holt, former university professor, is running against Dick Zimmer, who defeated former Rep. Mike Pappas in the Republican primary this year. Zimmer, a former member of Congress himself, ran ads that labeled Pappas foolish for singing ''Twinkle, Twinkle, Kenneth Starr'' on the House floor during the Clinton impeachment ordeal.
About 300 people, who drank champagne and snacked on chicken with artichokes under a white tent in Princeton, N.J., listened as Clinton said that even Republicans should think long and hard about replacing a physicist who has a grip on complicated technological and scientific issues facing America. ''We need someone who really understands this stuff,'' Clinton said.
Banging the podium, the president pleaded with the audience to tell everyone they know between now and November to support Gore, Holt and Jon Corzine, a multimillionaire venture capitalist running for the Senate from New Jersey.
Then he remembered first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is running for a Senate seat from New York.
''And Hillary - if they live in New York,'' he quickly added.
On the Net:
White House: www.whitehouse.gov
National Center for Education Statistics: http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid2000071