Bill Clinton's Small-Town Success

Church had just let out Sunday in steamy Marion, N.C., when the 42nd president of the United States rolled into town.

It was the middle of another busy day in the middle of nowhere for Bill Clinton. The stop in Marion -- population 4,900 -- was event No. 3 out of 8 he'd jammed into the last weekend day before Tuesday's North Carolina primary.

But after giving another classic 40-minute stemwinder at the town's historic train station, talking up his wife Hillary's candidacy with the verve and humor of a once-in-a-generation political performer, the former president lingered for a moment.

"This is not the speech," said Clinton, framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains in this little-traveled western pocket of the state. "I meant to say this, I don't have a note on it, but I meant to say it. The young woman who sang the national anthem today, McLain Rose? She has now sung for both Hillary and for me. And you must have been moved by her? Right?"

"Here's what I want you to remember: In little towns like this, all over America there are countless people like her. I just want you to think about that," he added. "If you had to hire somebody to make the best possible future for her, who would you hire? You think about that girl."

The crowd of nearly 1,000 -- many dressed in their Sunday best to see the only president of the United States they'd ever seen in person -- loved every moment of it.

Thirteen-year-old McLain Rose got another round of applause. And Clinton dove into the crowd for 30 more minutes of handshakes and photographs, before hitting the road for the next town on his checklist.

Clinton has worn a closet's full of hats this campaign -- trusted strategist, campaign attack dog, lightning rod for criticism of his wife's presidential bid. The Democratic race has in part become a referendum on the Clinton administration -- and the former president has seen his national reputation suffer with a series of purple-faced outbursts in response to pointed questions.

But it's this role -- what Clinton has alternately described as the "designated rural hit man" and "ambassador … to small-town America" -- that showcases the former president at his most effective.

Away from the major media markets -- and far from the circus atmosphere that envelops a modern presidential campaign -- Clinton is visiting small towns that seldom see national political candidates, much less presidents. With his unique, energetic style, he's recalling fond memories of his presidency, with the goal of ginning up votes for his wife.

"All the people that aren't for Hillary, who think that, you know, we're a little too connected to folks like you, they have made merciless, unmerciful fun of me about this -- 'Bill Clinton's out there in the country, exiled to the country,'" Clinton said Sunday in Lenoir, N.C. "I grew up in the country. I know where I am, and I wanna be right here."

He's using more than words to make that clear: In typical Clinton fashion, his days typically start around dawn and stretch past 11 p.m. He crams events -- and, often, local meals -- into his days; today, for instance, his public schedule includes nine campaign events in North Carolina, where voters go to the polls Tuesday.

According to tallies maintained by the Clinton campaign, Clinton has become the first U.S. president ever to visit 20 different counties in North Carolina and Indiana alone. That doesn't count places like, Lebanon, Ind., which hadn't seen a president since Abraham Lincoln; in Sanford, N.C., a local official joked of the town's "loooooong dry spell" -- going back to Harry Truman -- between presidential visits.

Even as national Democrats question the damage Clinton may be doing to his legacy in this campaign -- particularly with a series of sharp and not-fully-accurate comments aimed at Sen. Barack Obama -- Clinton remains overwhelmingly popular among Democrats, particularly in rural areas.

"I am a big fan of his and he did a lot of good things to help the country, so I personally think that he has helped," said Emily Markey of Winston-Salem, who came to see Clinton speak this weekend. "It is important to go to small towns and make people feel like we are important too."

"He seems to be doing what he does best, which is going out and meeting people," said Marcia McCall, who also saw Clinton speak in Winston-Salem on Sunday. "I think that is the perfect role for him."

For the Clinton campaign, deploying Clinton to rural areas serves several purposes. It channels his intense energy in a productive manner, engenders vast goodwill in parts of the country that feel neglected -- and ensures that the former president isn't overshadowing his wife.

"The smaller the media market he is in, the bigger the deal he is," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist who is supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House.

"For her campaign, the balance has always been using him in a way that gets them positive local coverage and grass-roots support, versus getting him in the national media, where you don't want him to overshadow her," Elmendorf said.

Clinton had a 70 percent favorable rating among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, released last month.

The rural outreach has been a critical part of building the senator's voting coalition. White, working-class voters have supported her in most of the big states to hold primaries this year; Obama's failure to win those voters over stands as perhaps her most compelling argument to the superdelegates she'll need to capture the nomination.

As Clinton himself delights in pointing out, his wife racked up huge margins in rural counties in states including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas; exit polls suggest that he carried the rural and small-town vote by nearly 2-1 in each of those states.

Her chances in North Carolina and Indiana, which both hold primaries Tuesday, rest on his ability to swamp Obama's urban votes with big margins in less-populated areas.

"I checked when the Pennsylvania vote came in, and Hillary got over 60 percent of the vote in every single county where I did a front porch rally, so don't y'all let me down," he said Sunday in Lenoir.

When the former president has registered nationally, the headlines have seldom been positive. Shortly after the Iowa caucuses, Clinton called the lack of press scrutiny of Obama's record a "fairy tale," enraging black voters in particular.

He followed that up with several episodes where he scolded the press for not focusing on issues that are important to voters. He appeared to inflict further damage on his wife's campaign a few weeks later, when he equated Obama's candidacy with Jesse Jackson's on the day of the South Carolina primary.

Just two weeks ago, when Pennsylvania voters were about to go to the polls, he told a radio interviewer that the Obama campaign "played the race card on me," prompting a fresh round of what's-wrong-with-Bill stories in the national media.

But from the Clinton campaign's perspective, there's nothing wrong with Bill that some time in small towns on the trail can't fix. The effort to deploy him to rural areas began in earnest in Texas, where he bounced between dusty border villages and oil-bust towns in a 1950s blue pickup truck. The crowds in Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Nagadoches loved the folksy jokes almost as much as his cowboy boots.

By the time the campaigns descended on Pennsylvania, where Clinton and Obama both spent a solid six weeks on the ground, the pickup truck was gone and the front porch was in. Instead of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Bill Clinton spent his time in Milford, Somerset and Jim Thorpe, and crowds often lined the streets in the long stretches between stops.

In one typical event, perhaps 150 people spent a chilly afternoon with Clinton in an airport hangar in tiny Tobyhanna, Pa., home to roughly 6,100 northeastern Pennsylvanians.

When one man in the audience shouted that he, too, was from Arkansas, the locals started interjecting their observations even as Clinton spoke. He spent 45 minutes after the speech was through making sure that he shook every outstretched hand.

On the trail, he expresses wonky concepts with small-town analogies: Making decisions in Iraq is like making a dentist appointment, and not enforcing trade policies is like "slapping your local banker," he likes to say.

One favorite rhetorical flourish involves mocking Washington pundits. "Hillary has been buried by the pundits more times than a zombie," he said last week in Elkin, N.C.

And as he talks about the economy, his wife's experience and the successes of his administration, Clinton likes to remind potential voters that he's one of them.

"I love coming to places that don't normally see presidents, don't normally see presidential campaigns," he said at a recent stop in Boonville, Ind. "The backbone and the heartbeat of America -- places like Boonville. In my home state of Arkansas there's a Booneville, but it's not nearly as big as this. This is a downright metropolis compared to Booneville, Ark. But I'm honored to be here."