By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008
LUMBERTON, N.C. -- Bill Clinton swung open the screen door and stepped onto Baxter Williams's front porch, its wooden floorboards creaking beneath him. The former president, a veteran speechmaker used to 50,000-seat stadiums and convention halls, sipped from a bottle of water and took in his latest venue. An abandoned sewage plant to his left. A barking dog to his right. An overturned trampoline in Williams's front yard directly ahead.
Clinton had traveled here, to a dead-end street in a 22,000-person town that no other U.S. president had ever visited, to make the case for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But first, as he stared out at the 300-plus people and their various pets lounging in the overgrown weeds of Williams's lawn, he felt it necessary to clarify something.
"They say Bill Clinton's been banished to the backwater, but that's not how it is," he said. "I'm from the backwater. I like it here."
After a series of awkward moments and costly missteps while campaigning for his wife, Clinton has finally discovered a role that suits him. He's become the campaign's self-proclaimed "ambassador to small-town America," traveling to places where the mere arrival of his motorcade signals a significant moment in local history, where his charm and affability carry substantial weight among voters.
In the past month, at least 20 counties in Indiana and North Carolina received their first-ever presidential visits when Clinton stopped by. That meant 20 grateful towns, 20 awestruck audiences and a trail of feel-good local media coverage across both states. Hillary Clinton's campaign hopes it will pay off in her marathon race with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) when rural voters in North Carolina and Indiana vote in their states' primaries Tuesday.
"He's perfect in places like this," said Julia Boseman, a North Carolina state senator who traveled to Lumberton with Clinton last week. "He has a way of instantly making the kind of connection that wins over people in towns like these. People here can't believe they're seeing or touching him. They love him just for coming."
A few minutes before 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Clinton climbed into the back seat of a large gray SUV to begin what has become a typical day on the campaign trail. He planned to make seven stops in towns scattered along 180 miles of Interstate 95: Apex, Sanford, Lillington, Dunn, Hope Mills, Lumberton and Whiteville. One forlorn campaign aide, glancing over the morning's itinerary, guessed that only the most unfortunate long-haul truckers had ever visited the same places in one day.
Clinton, though, quickly settled into a comfortable routine. At each stop, his motorcade pulled off the highway and headed past gas stations and fast-food outlets toward a makeshift stage downtown. Campaign staffers had spent a week forging public arenas from whatever was available in towns that never before required them. A rusted train depot, an unkempt park, Williams's big front yard -- all suddenly capable of serving as platforms for the 42nd president.
The local mayor walked onstage first at each event, nervous and clutching notes, to introduce Clinton and offer him a key to the city. Clinton thanked each mayor, shoved each oversize key into a suit-coat pocket and spoke for about 40 minutes. He shook hands for 10 more minutes before heading back to I-95.
Clinton interspersed his campaign pitches with tidbits from his upbringing as a small-town boy in Hope, Ark. He grew up in a place "that nobody knew about," he said. Early on, he "learned to work on cars, changing oil" for the first time when he was 5 years old. During law school, he "worked six jobs, but never more than three at a time." Because of debt, he and Hillary were "poor as church mice." But then, "gosh, it turned out pretty good," because "even Mama didn't think I could become the president."
His narratives drew warm chuckles and loud applause, the easy-to-please audiences standing in stark contrast to the scrutiny that defined Clinton's first several months on the campaign trail. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton sometimes overshadowed his wife by making public suggestions about foreign policy and potential White House staffing. His popularity dropped -- a third of Americans in the most recent Washington Post poll said their views of him were "strongly negative" -- and campaign strategists wondered: How could one of the most famous men in the world be used effectively without becoming the premier attraction and overshadowing his spouse?
Only here, in rural North Carolina and places like it, did Clinton finally discover an answer. He campaigns vigorously, but usually in places where the spotlight can't chase him. He seeks laudatory local news coverage but avoids attention from the national press.
According to Clinton, the new role has provided momentum to his wife's campaign. He speaks mostly to Democrats, and often to crowds made up mainly of the working-class whites who have tended to vote for his wife anyway. Still, in the 20-plus rural Pennsylvania counties Clinton visited, he said his wife won at least 60 percent of the vote. In Lumberton on Wednesday, he relayed that statistic to the crowd and implored, "Please don't break my string."
"It doesn't get complicated in places like this," said Bob Kunst, the president of a grass-roots organization called Hillary Now, who has worked at several Bill Clinton events. "In these places, they're flattered to see him. He relates well. Everybody goes home happy."
By the time Clinton arrived at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Dunn, population 10,000, he had entered the sort of campaigning zone that has made him a legend at connecting with voters. He emerged onto the steps of a local museum to a standing ovation, his face sunburned and his pink tie flapping in the wind.
Victoria Hinson, 59, who had waited in front of the museum for three hours, gasped and fanned herself with her right hand. Once, she had seen Gerald R. Ford's motorcade pass by while she was working her shift at a local convenience store -- a story she'd repeated to friends for 25 years.
"Oh, they're never going to believe how lucky I am now," Hinson said. "He's right there, can't be 20 yards away. Bill Clinton! He's more famous than anybody, except maybe the pope."
Dunn had essentially shut down all town operations in order to welcome Clinton, and more than 500 people jostled for position near the museum stage. Three local middle schools extended their lunch breaks so teachers and students could gather downtown. The local newspaper dispatched its publisher, executive editor, managing editor and all three full-time reporters to compile a front-page news story, which it headlined "A Historic Occasion: Bill Thrills Crowds."
Under a dogwood tree to the right of the stage, two men from a local barbecue restaurant cooked meat over hot coals. The wind carried the smoke to Clinton, and he caught the scent of pepper and vinegar as he started his speech.
"I can smell that pig pickin'," he said. "And you know I'm going to eat some later."
Clinton proceeded to tell his audience that small towns such as Dunn could propel his wife into office and that "people here are as smart as anywhere." When the speech veered into explanations about his wife's policies on health care, education and the economy, the crowd's attention waned. More than 50 people left early or walked over to the barbecue pit for lunch.
Lloyd Monds, 61, who had just retired from Dunn's meatpacking plant, looked down at his watch seven minutes into the speech and frowned.
"You know, I really just wanted to watch him walk up there, witness history, and that's about enough," Monds said. "It doesn't matter so much what he says. I'm going to vote for her. Most of us are probably going to vote for her. He already won everybody over just by arranging to be here."