'Bubba's' rural appeal outshines Michelle's sullen swing through N.C.

Posted: May 06, 2008 6:12 AM
'Bubba's' rural appeal outshines Michelle's sullen swing through N.C.

RALEIGH, N.C. - Bill Clinton arrived an hour and 15 minutes late to his last campaign stop of the day in Raleigh, N.C., but he arrived to cheers. It was his ninth stop of the day, and his 15th in two days, stumping for his wife in mostly rural areas of a state where she continues to trail by 5-7 percentage points.

“This is my 49th town in North Carolina, and I thank all of you for helping Hillary,” Clinton told a crowd of several hundred outside Hillary headquarters in the state’s capital. His voice rasped slightly in what was either a genuine manifestation of his dedication or a calculated aural reminder of another last-minute push he made through traditionally Republican territories when he famously lost his voice on the way to a 1992 victory.

Bill Clinton evoked the Comeback Kid of old Monday, urging the people of North Carolina to carry his wife to a surprising win on Tuesday. His manner, the crowds he’s pulled, and the sheer number of his stops suggests Clinton may have, at long last, become the asset he was meant to be on the trail—tireless, cheery and charming in the face of substantial odds. Indeed, 49 stops in N.C. without saying something counterproductive and off-message is an accomplishment in itself for the politician formerly known as a master communicator.

He stopped in Sanford, a Sandhills town that hadn’t seen a president since Truman. He stopped in Roxboro, where he reportedly spoke to 2,000 in a town of only 9,000. They are the places where Hillary’s base lives, in Appalachia and along the so-called “Poverty Belt” of southern North Carolina where mill closings and hard times make Hillary’s bread-and-butter message more palpable than Obama’s lofty rhetoric.

Bill’s regained aplomb on the trail combined with Barack Obama’s “bitter clingers” remarks have given rural Tarheels something to turn out for. Voters in Asheville called the president “very exciting,” and one churchgoer noted, “I’m shocked he’s coming.”

In Boone, N.C., thousands of college students and local residents waited two hours to see Clinton speak. The crowd wasn’t short on enthusiasm:

“I love Bill and Hillary,” she said. “I’m a longtime Bill Clinton fan. Our family has always been fans of Bill Clinton, and we’ve always supported Bill and Hillary.”

Student Maggie Hindsman said, “A lot of us came whether we support Bill and Hillary or not. It’s not often we get people of that stature here, and it’s nice to get the recognition. It makes us feel better about ourselves.”

For his part, Obama hasn’t ventured west of Hickory, just an hour northwest of Charlotte, where Obama’s big-city voters dwell in droves. Bill also stands in stark contrast to Obama’s closest surrogate, Michelle, who spoke extensively in Fayetteville and Charlotte today without cracking a smile at either event. The local evening news showed Clinton’s preternatural, gee-golly glad-hand routine next to Michelle’s dour, stern-faced lectures about Obama’s greatness. The juxtaposition did the Obamas no favors.

The new-and-improved Bill is backing up an invigorated Hillary, who’s been an unlikely ray of sunshine on TV and the trail of late. Clad in pink, blue, pantsuits of every hue, Hillary Clinton is grinning her way into Tuesday’s primaries.

It almost makes one wonder: “What do they know that we don’t?” Hillary’s still favored to win Indiana, though not by much. She’s up 5 points in the Real Clear Politics average of the most recent daily tracking polls. North Carolina is a state demographically favorable for Obama with several large urban centers filled with black voters and highly educated white liberals, but things have swung decidedly in her favor since mid-April when Obama led in the high teens and twenties in every daily tracking poll.

Old Clinton adversaries have always noted, with a hint of sometimes grudging respect, that Hillary is a woman who is best when under fire. Her appearance in the most hostile territory since her fictionalized combat tour of Tuzla certainly seemed to confirm it. Clinton came off strong, intelligent, even warm and occasionally funny as she faced off with none other than Bill O’Reilly on the Fox News Channel last week.

Her relatively gaffe-free marathon interrogation by the O'Reilly outshined Obama’s own Fox News audition for Commander in Chief, and ever since, she’s been rarin’ to go, displaying a warmth and enthusiasm that rings truer than her famous New Hampshire tear and suits her better than the imprimatur of inevitability ever did.

In response to a question about Rush Limbaugh’s Operation Chaos, during which he’s urged Republican voters to switch affiliations to vote for Clinton, Hillary joked to George Stephanopoulos, “He's always had a crush on me."

Monday on Fox & Friends, host Gretchen Carlson asked Clinton about her newfound heart:

CARLSON:  Do you also have an advisor for niceness?  Because that's been one of the biggest raps against you…and things seem to have changed for you recently. Now that line yesterday about Rush Limbaugh, who's helping you?

HILLARY:  Nobody.  I'm just having a good time. I think this is so much fun, campaigning across our country, and especially these last couple of weeks, in North Carolina and Indiana. People have been wonderful. The spring is here, everything is blooming. I mean, how could you not have a good time? It's been wonderful.

Well, at least Jeremiah Wright’s sermons have been uplifting for someone. It seems that adversity has brought out the Bill in Hill. She’s comfortable in her skin, upbeat, and entertaining. She’s taken on the crowd-pleasing gas-tax holiday while relegating Obama to the tut-tutting realism and referencing of experts that were formerly her province.

Unfortunately for Obama, adversity looks to have brought out the Michelle in him-- snapping at press over half-eaten waffles, calculating politically and getting caught in the act, and sounding less lofty and more like a lecturer on the trail.

It’s doubtful that even the old Bill working overtime on the “Bubba tour” and Hillary’s newfound optimism can close the gap in North Carolina, but don’t be surprised if the combination makes Obama’s win much more narrow than expected.

“Do you believe in your heart she can win?” Bill Clinton asked at the end of his stump speech to loud cheers and chants of “Hillary.”

For a couple whose union has always been about love of politics, it may finally be all about heart in this all-important homestretch.