Morganton, N.C. — “It’s funny,” says Bill Clinton, standing on the front porch of a gorgeous house on a gorgeous day in western North Carolina. “The people in the press who haven’t been particularly on our side anyway — they love their little jibes, you know. They say, ‘Poor ol’ Bill Clinton has been sent out to the country.’ Like I’ve been banished.”
“And one of these people who think that all of the superior people would obviously not be for Hillary, wrote a funny little column in New York the other day in a magazine. And he said, ‘The next thing you know, Bill Clinton will be taking Wal-Mart greeters to the polls.’ Now, that fellow thought he was putting me down. And I thought, he’s given me a good idea!”
Clinton has a few facts wrong — actually, the article, in The New Yorker, quoted a Clinton campaign source bringing up the Wal-Mart thing. But he’s generally right about those elite types who think Bill embarrassed Hillary one too many times and had to be sent out to the provinces, where he couldn’t do any harm.
But the fact is, at this point in the campaign, these are the most important places in the world for Hillary Clinton. If she is going to do well in North Carolina, if she is going to put a scare in Barack Obama in a state he should win pretty handily, it will be because of Morganton, population 17,310, and a lot of other places like it. So let the commentariat lament, or laugh, about Bill being sent out into the sticks; for Hillary, the sticks are where the votes are. Just look at the electoral map of any state she has won, with Obama winning a few big counties and Hillary Clinton taking the rest.
“We started having these front-porch rallies in Pennsylvania, as soon as it got warm enough to do it,” Clinton tells the crowd, “and in every place I did a front-porch rally, on Election Day, Hillary got more than 60 percent of the vote in those counties.” Bill isn’t on the outs in the campaign. He’s on the cutting edge.
You can also put aside the conventional wisdom you’ve heard about the former president being rusty. Yes, he was a bit creaky when he first started campaigning for his wife. But now he’s selling the product as slickly as he ever did. And he’s pushing hard. Morganton is his second of six stops today — not counting two morning church visits — in the western part of North Carolina. On Monday, he’ll make nine stops in the east, starting at 7:30 A.M. and ending at 10:00 P.M. Nine events — nine speeches — is a lot for anybody. The Clintons think they are closing fast in this state, and it is Bill who is doing most of the work.
When he was at peak form in his own campaigns, back in the 1990s, Clinton could at times sound like a televangelist. Today, he’s a car salesman — literally. “I grew up in the car business,” Clinton tells the crowd at his first rally of the day, at the train station in Marion, population 4,943.
He mentions his stepfather, Roger Clinton, who sold cars in Arkansas, as he launches into a story about the time two months ago when “Hillary called me and said, ‘Bill, I just met a guy who swears he’s driving a car that gets 100 miles per gallon. I sure would like to talk about it, but I don’t want to be embarrassed. You call him and find out if he’s telling the truth.’” So Clinton, drawing on his life in the car business, checks it out and tells the crowd that it’s all true. The only problem is that batteries for the car cost $10,000. But guess what? “Hillary’s energy plan would give a $10,000 tax credit, dollar for dollar, for everyone who bought one of these plug-in vehicles.” You can get the whole thing at no extra cost! But only if you vote for Hillary.
The crowd likes the idea — a lot. They also buy Clinton’s pitch about a gas-tax holiday. You know all those people who say it’s bad economics? They’re the same bunch of elitists who snicker about Bill and the Wal-Mart greeters. “I knew the minute Hillary proposed this, a lot of people would heap scorn on her,” he says. “I didn’t think her opponent would do it, but he did, saying, ‘Oh this is a terrible thing to do, we’re just pandering to people.’ Well, I have one observation. Nobody is saying this who has trouble filling up their gas tank. They’re all the people who can buy it whatever it is. A real president in touch with the values and needs of the American people would be trying to give you help now and in the long run.”
Clinton’s crowds are mostly white, just like they’ve been in Pennsylvania and Ohio and nearly everywhere else. In the south, they remind you of how many whites didn’t migrate to the Republican party, and of how popular Clinton remains here. (In his two national election victories, Clinton managed to win Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Florida — and lost North Carolina by about 0.7 percent in 1992.) “Been a Democrat all my life — born and bred,” an older man named Cecil tells me. “I know they say he’s done this, he’s done that, but he was no worse than all the rest,” adds his wife, Nettie.
“And they never did prove nothing on him,” says Cecil.
“I’ve been a Democrat since I was 18,” says Amanda. She’s voting for Hillary because “I don’t like someone who puts down their minister.” Without mentioning either Barack Obama or Rev. Jeremiah Wright, she adds, “You go to a church for 20 years, how come all of a sudden you don’t believe in his views?”
“Plus, Hillary’s for the poor people,” chimes in Amanda’s friend Susan.
All tell me they won’t vote for Obama if he is the Democratic nominee. But several others in the crowd say they will vote for Obama, if it comes to that. In all, the racial divide within the Democratic party seems nearly as alive here as it was in Pennsylvania and Ohio; I speak to one mixed-race couple bringing their child to the rally, and the black father tells me he’ll vote for Obama, while the white mother says she’s for Hillary, but would support Obama if he wins.
A short time later, I approach a man wearing a blue OPERATION CHAOS t-shirt. His name is James, and it turns out he’s a high-school teacher in nearby Nebo and a big Rush Limbaugh fan. He apologizes for the t-shirt, which looks fine but isn’t the kind one buys on Limbaugh’s website. “I did not have the opportunity to buy one in time, so I made myself one,” he explains. “I hope Mr. Limbaugh doesn’t mind.”
He probably won’t. And neither will Hillary Clinton. “I’m going to vote Democratic, I’m going to vote Hillary, to keep the carnage going until the national election in November,” James explains. Then, after a brief pause, he adds: “McCain all the way!”
James is the exception in the crowd, as far as I can tell. But then so is Gretchen Baer, an artist — “actually, I’m a waitress by trade” — from Bisbee, Ariz., who has driven to Morganton in the “Hill Car,” a 1989 Toyota Corolla she has turned into a rolling shrine to the former First Lady.
She’s driven it from Arizona to Texas to Pennsylvania and now to North Carolina. She’s also wearing the “Hill Suit,” on which she has stenciled iconic images of Sen. Clinton. “Hillary’s got years of experience,” Baer tells me. “I think with Obama you scratch beneath the surface and there’s not much there.”
Meanwhile, up on the front porch, Bill Clinton is still talking. “It’s been my great honor in this campaign to have a chance, ever since Iowa and New Hampshire, to be Hillary’s ambassador to small town and rural America,” he tells the crowd. Sidney Simmons, the Morganton man who bought and restored the 1906 house — “Actually, it restored me,” he says — is sitting nearby in a rocking chair, beaming. These stops are heavy on flags and bunting, and if you take away the PA system and the Mellencamp/Petty/Brooks & Dunn soundtrack, the scenes could be from a century ago, with the candidate speechifying from the porch to the crowd gathered below. Let the politicos look down their nose at him. In this Democratic race, at this time, Bill Clinton is right where he needs to be.