CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s not just support for President Obama that had a crowd standing in line for hours on Tuesday and, once inside, waiting out the storms that delayed Vice President Biden’s plane circling at the airport. “He’s honest, he’s forthright and he says what’s on his mind,” said retired speech therapist Russelle Smith of Charlotte.
Biden didn’t disappoint her or any of the 1,000 or so who heard him deliver the administration’s policy points with trademark Biden emotion and asides. “You’re probably thinking you waited as long as the convention,” he said when he arrived late, referring to the Democratic Party’s party in this city just a month ago. The next date he and every other speaker referred to was Oct. 12, the voter registration deadline, and Oct. 18, when early voting starts here. Biden praised “the best ground game we’ve ever seen in this state” as “the reason we’re going to win in North Carolina.”
He was back for his sixth N.C. trip this year and for the first time since his highly watched speech during the Democratic National Convention. With polls showing a tight race in a swing state that some early in the campaign wrote off for Democrats – one with 15 electoral votes — an enthusiastic crowd came convinced that the Obama-Biden ticket can repeat its narrow 14,000-vote 2008 win in North Carolina. (Ads flooding the airwaves prove that, for now, both parties are all in.)
The scene was the Fillmore, where considerably younger music stars such as recent headliner Fiona Apple usually take the stage. (The New Familiars entertained during the wait, and though Libertarian-minded band member Josh Daniel usually takes to Facebook to poke at the president, no one seemed to know or care.)
Once onstage, Biden was rock star enough as he criticized his Republican opponents, who “don’t tell you what they’re for,” and defended the Obama administration’s positions on Medicare, taxes, education, energy and manufacturing. Quoting his dad, Biden said, “Show me your budget, and I will tell you what you value,” before saying Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan cuts would hurt Medicaid and education.
Biden reserved special tribute for members of the military, when they’re serving and when they return, “after the parades are over and the streets re-named,” he said. Riding home from combat zones with “fallen angels” on board, he said, “turns that cargo plane into a cathedral.”
As the presidential candidates prepare to get every word right in that first debate, Biden, so often spoofed for gaffes, was praised for being exactly what you see. “He pulled the audience in,” said Mattie Marshall, 63, of Charlotte. “He relates to each and every one of us on a personal level. We’re leaving with a team spirit.” The homespun “NC [Hearts] Joe!” sign hanging from the rafters contrasted with the professional “Forward” campaign posters, though a chant of “Fired up, ready for Joe” didn’t quite catch on.
Biden didn’t falter when joking about Republicans who “discovered the middle class” at their convention, talk about the great recession “like it fell out of the sky in 2008” or use tax cuts as a solution to U.S. economic struggles.
“Look, folks, this country is neither dependent nor in decline. I don’t recognize the country they’re talking about,” Biden said of Ryan’s words on an American dependency culture and Romney’s “47 percent,” the phrase that keeps on giving. “There’s no quit in America,” Biden said, before working the line, posing for every picture, hugging every child and even kissing an outstretched hand.
Lillian Sechrest has been canvassing for the Obama campaign in Huntersville, N.C., where she’s been surprised by the number of Obama voters she’s met. “They didn’t know any other Democrats,” she said. The 22-year-old recently graduated from college with the help of student loans. “The government definitely helped.”
Her dad, Steve Sechrest, 54, the owner of the Comfortable Couch Company, a small manufacturing and retail operation, said controversy over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comments are “just a bunch of nonsense.” He said, “If Obama hadn’t stopped the free fall we wouldn’t be able to start what we started and get where we’ve gotten.”
Not everyone who showed up on Tuesday was a fan, though. Robert Reid, the N.C. communications director for the Romney campaign, didn’t get in to hear Biden speak, but he said he’s heard it all before. Standing outside after Biden’s remarks, he pointed to the state’s higher than national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent. “People here in North Carolina understand that we can’t afford four more years,” Reid said. “They understand that the president and Vice President Biden are offering absolutely nothing new in terms of policies.” He said, when people look at their own situation and “understand that it doesn’t have to be this hard,” they will turn to the GOP’s plan for a stronger private sector, more good jobs and higher take-home pay. “We’re confident that it’s going to help us to deliver Romney to victory in November.”
Charlotte city councilwoman LaWana Mayfield told me her request for both parties — to hear more about the people “who are one or two paychecks away from losing everything.” She said she wants to know, “What’s the plan?” Mayfield, a Democrat, said, “I love my president,” and added, “We failed them when we didn’t elect progressive candidates in the House and the Senate.” But in the debates and on the campaign trail, Mayfield said, “I’d like to hear the word ‘poor’ once.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3