Bill Clinton's Small-Town Success

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.

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