Bill Clinton Takes His Political Game to Small Towns

Fans of electoral politics could play a fun game these days: Where in the countryside is Bill Clinton? But playing could require a very detailed map.

This week, the former president has been sticking to the tiny back roads of North Carolina and Indiana. Along the way, Clinton campaigns for his wife — and, at times, for his own legacy.

At a recent event, Clinton was a half-hour into a dense policy speech, finding his rhythm, when a woman in the crowd fainted.

"We need some water and a paramedic over here," Clinton said.

The crowd had been waiting for hours outside the old train depot in Whiteville, N.C., and it was a hot day. But Clinton couldn't resist taking credit for the swoon.

"If I knew in advance they were gonna be all right, at my age, I'd kind of like that," Clinton said. "I didn't think I could make anybody faint anymore."

Still, a lot of things have changed.

From Town Halls to Little League Fields

Bill Clinton used to play all the big stages: Madison Square Garden, the U.N., the Oval Office.

This week, he had the touring schedule of an oldies cover band, from town halls to Little League fields.

He stood on the back of a flatbed truck that still had the words "WIDE LOAD" on the front.

At most stops, Clinton began with this theme of being picked on.

"There was an article in one of the magazines a couple of days ago talking about how I had been exiled to the countryside," Clinton said. "Well, let me tell you something. I exiled myself there when we went to New Hampshire and we had to win, and I knew that the country people would bring us home. And sure enough, they did."

The crowd loved the underdog bit. For these country folk, it's like the old Bill Clinton never left the stage.

'See and Greet' in Hope Mills, N.C.

In towns like Lillington and Dunn, N.C., Clinton's visit was greeted with banners and roasted pigs.

Down the road in Hope Mills, Clinton's visit was the biggest hoopla they'd seen since the last Fourth of July. There was a bluegrass band, and singing schoolchildren.

Fred Cole grew up there. He said it was the town's first presidential visit.

"The town turns out for just about anything," Cole said. "This is where you see and greet a lot of people."

The stage was set up on the city baseball field, just off third base. A lot of the people went just to gawk: They took a picture when Clinton came out, then wandered away as he spoke.

Golden Age of the Working Man

Most of Clinton's speech was made up of serious policy arguments about Hillary Clinton's agenda. But on every topic, he couldn't quite help slipping in a plug for the good old days of his own administration.

Talking about his wife's jobs program, Clinton said, "Let me remind you, when I came here to North Carolina in '92, I said, 'I have a plan for 8 million jobs.' And you wound up with nearly 23 million."

A look at Hillary Clinton's tax policy brings a mention that "when I was president ... more than the top 5 percent" of Americans thrived.

In the story Bill Clinton tells these towns, his administration was the golden age of the working man — and nobody but he and his wife can bring that back. He tells the rural crowds that other people may look down on them, but not the Clintons.

"Hillary is in this race today with a real chance to win because of people like you," Clinton said.

"If it had been up to the experts and the party elites and the wealthiest Americans who are Democrats, she'd be toast."

A Political Gift

After the speech, no one brought up the fact that Bill Clinton fits that definition himself: a wealthy party elite. In the eyes of small-town voters, Bill Clinton will always be one of them.

Katherine Clontz watched Clinton in his last stop of the day in Whiteville.

"He's really charismatic. He does know the people's pain and what they're going through right now, the struggles of American people," Clontz said, acknowledging that Clinton's skill helped him when he was governor of Arkansas but sounding a note of mistrust that he now lives in New York.

"Call me a sucker, call me what you will," Clontz said. "But I think he does understand and try to help the people."

It's a political gift. And Bill Clinton still knows how to use it.

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