INDIANAPOLIS — The day Democratic Senate candidate Joe Donnelly answered his cell and was asked to hold for former President Clinton, he told the 4,000 souls squeezed into North Central High School’s gym, his only real question was which friend was trying to punk him. “And the next voice I hear is the voice of God.”
To a Democrat in a squeaky-tight race that his party’s control of the Senate might hinge on, that’s how it sounded, anyway. “I’d do my Clinton imitation,” the congressman added, maybe walking back that God comment just a hair, “but it might not be respectful. He said, ‘Joe, you’re gonna win this race…and would ya mind if I wanted to help a little bit?’ And I said, ‘I’ll check my schedule.’ ”
Turns out, Friday morning was open, so Clinton dropped by here to do what he does, which lately has involved stumping for President Obama and other Democratic candidates across the country.
Obama is not expected to repeat his surprise ’08 victory in the state next month, and at this stop, the former president didn’t have that much to say about the current POTUS, though one could argue he’s already done more good for 44’s reelection chances than anyone on Team Obama’s payroll.
Clinton sold the wadding out of Donnelly and his buddy and fellow character, Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg, though, even if Gregg is in an uphill race against Republican Congressman Mike Pence. And Hillary Clinton’s name came up a time or two as well.
Having visited the state 39 times with her in ’08, when she was running for president and carried Indiana in the primary, Clinton began, “I almost feel entitled to sing, ‘Back Home Again in Indiana.’ I went so many places I thought I was gonna get a state tax bill.” Home in Washington on Thursday to celebrate his 37th wedding anniversary, he said she told him “I wish I were going with you” to Indy. Maybe in ’16?
With his hands outstretched, palms up, as if soaking in the sunshine of adoration from a crowd stomping its feet and thumping the bleachers, Clinton said he’d been reliably assured that “this is about as good as we can do for a crowd except for basketball.”
“I didn’t expect to be quite so involved in this campaign,” he allowed — and didn’t need to mention that plan changed because Obama needed it to, and needed him. With a daughter in TV news now, and a wife whose job precludes her from going anywhere near electoral politics, he said, “You’re stuck with me,” milking the moment and setting off more bleacher-thumping.
Donnelly is up two points in the latest polling against his Republican rival, state treasurer and tea party favorite Richard Mourdock. And Clinton sold Donnelly as a moderate in, well, the Clinton mold — someone for whom bipartisanship is an aspiration rather than a defeat. He just doesn’t relate, he said, to Mourdock’s comment that “the highlight of politics, frankly, is to inflict my opinion on someone else.” He’s also said his idea of compromise is when Democrats decide they agree with him.
“I don’t understand how you could say your biggest thrill in life is imposing your opinion,” Clinton said, “especially if you don’t necessarily know what you’re talking about…I don’t mean that in a hateful way, but what is this ‘My way or the highway’ idea,” he asked, repeating the language of a series of comical, and highly effective, Donnelly ads. “I was raised to believe nobody’s right all the time.”
Clinton also made a straight-on pitch to supporters of longtime Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the man Mourdock defeated in a bitter primary fight. Lugar hasn’t appeared at a single Mourdock event in the state, and the Mourdock team is seen here as having made little attempt to try and change that, though Mourdock will need those Lugar Republicans to win.
When Mourdock won the primary, the former president said, “I thought he at least might have acknowledged that Dick Lugar made America a safer, stronger place.” When that didn’t happen, “That’s when I called Evan [Bayh] and said, ‘I think Joe Donnelly can win this thing.”’
Clinton riffed a little about political labels, and said he can’t believe the current Republican Party is seen as conservative: “The four people on this stage,” he said, referring to himself, Donnelly, Gregg, and Bayh, the former senator and governor, “we are way more fiscally conservative than the people they’ve got running.”
“Dick Lugar,” on the other hand, “was a bona fide conservative. He thought a lot of stuff should be done at the state and local level or private sector that I thought the federal government out to help in. He voted against me more than half the time, but when the interests of the country were on the line, we got together and we worked together.”
He said it floored him to see Mourdock score points against Lugar by “excoriating him for working with President Obama on national security matters – do you really think it’s a Democrat or Republican issue whether Osama bin Laden and a lot of al-Qaeda leadership is gone now? I thought that was an American issue.”
Mourdock has raised a lot of money off of his tea party ties but doesn’t want to be known as a tea party guy any more, according to a recent report by longtime WISH-TV political reporter Jim Shella. “I’ve been swimming in the pool of Republican politics for a long time,” Mourdock told reporters, and called the GOP “this party I love.” He’s also questioned the constitutionality of Medicare and Social Security, and sued the federal government to try and stop the Chrysler bailout.
One of the most extraordinary things about Clinton’s half-hour speech, delivered without a glance at the blue binder he brought with him to the podium, is how little it borrowed from a talk he gave at a similar campaign event in Las Vegas earlier in the week. It ended it with a pitch for Obama, saying that in his opinion, the single best thing the president has done is save the auto industry. “I never call it a bailout,” he said, because it wasn’t a giveaway but a restructuring supported by other car companies, even Japanese ones, who realized the national and even global implications. “And what happened when we acted like we’re all in this thing together?” Jobs were saved — 120,000 of them in Indiana — “and auto sales last month reached a four-year high.”
Among the partisans milling around after the event, I met a newly registered voter — a 42-year-old hospital nurse who said she’s never before voted in a presidential race — and naturally, I couldn’t wait to hear what had turned her into a Democrat, this year, anyway: “I don’t like [Paul] Ryan because he lied about his marathon time,” said the woman, Amy Robbins. “That’s offensive to runners. I do not read the paper or watch TV; I participate zero,” she said. “But I did like him,” she added, pointing to Clinton, who was still making his way through the crowd.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political reporter and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.