Clintons’ play for NC: ‘People like you in places like this’

by Jordan Green

The Clinton clan and a battalion of supporters, including the governor, a congresswoman, an auto racing legend, a retired general and an ordinary person applauding the candidate’s call to suspend the gas tax, canvassed North Carolina in the run-up to the primary in a multi-front attempt to cut into Sen. Barack Obama’s lead.

Sen. Hillary Clinton’s appeal proved durable and multifaceted, drawing on female solidarity, nostalgia for economic good times in the 1990s, an image of hard-headed practicality and the same quality of empathy that catapulted her husband from a legendary career in Arkansas politics to the White House 16 years ago.

Going into the weekend before the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, Clinton campaigned at a farm machinery dealership in Kinston, in front of the county courthouse in Henderson and in a gymnasium at Guilford College in Greensboro before heading to Raleigh to join Obama at the state Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Friday. The next day, she showed up in Wake Forest, Gastonia and at the NC Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Mooresville before flying to Indianapolis for a rally with heartland rock icon John Mellencamp.

In Mooresville, a bedroom community on Charlotte’s northern periphery nicknamed “Race City USA” that is flush with wealth both attracted and driven by the presence of the auto-racing industry and scenic Lake Norman, most of the predominantly white audience packed alongside classic 1950s racing cars expressed fervent loyalty to their candidate. And their rapturous applause demonstrated their connection to the dual supplications made to NASCAR and barbecue by the assembled politicians.

“This Bush administration, they’ve had the caution flag out for way too long on our economy,” Gov. Mike Easley said, working the audience into a frenzy as he introduced the candidate. “And we got someone here today who doesn’t know but one speed, and that’s pedal to the metal. She’s been around the track on more than one occasion, and she might have gotten loose from time to time, but she’s never spun out of control.”

Clinton embraced the metaphor.

“I’ve been telling everybody, if you didn’t know,” she said, “that I’ve been nicked and bumped and knocked around a few times.”

Hillary has been a survivor since she took a beating from Obama during the Iowa caucuses in December, and maybe since she endured the public humiliation of her husband’s affair with intern Monica Lewinski. And in her domestic-policy pitch she has personified the mother who responds with indignation when her school-aged children are ill treated by the public-education bureaucracy. On the campaign trail, she has sought to portray herself as someone with practical plans running against an obstructionist opponent.

“Now, I know my opponent is running ads and holding press conferences attacking my plan to give people a break from paying the gas tax this summer,” Clinton said of Obama at her Mooresville stop. “And we’ve seen this from him before. Instead of attacking the problem, he attacks my solution. And this is part of a larger difference between us. It’s a difference that I think you should really consider as you move towards voting on Tuesday because you’ve got to make up your mind about who really is on your side.”

She raised differences between her approach to crises in healthcare and home foreclosures, mentioning a woman “who grabbed my hand and said, ‘I’m voting for you because I think I wouldn’t have lost my home if you’d been president’ as she approached the stage at the auto racing museum to draw a human connection to her policy proposals, before returning to the subject of the gas tax.

“And you know when gas prices started going up through the roof, I said, ‘Well, let’s have the oil companies start paying the gas tax with their record profits instead of letting you pay when you fill up the tank,'” Clinton said. “And we can do that without running up the deficit or taking a dime out of the highway trust fund. But my opponent won’t do that. So there is a big difference between us, and the question is this: Who understands what you’re going through and who will stand up for you?”

Empathy, determination and feminine survivalism resonated in different ways for different supporters. And not unlike Obama, Clinton has inspired intense devotion among her partisans.

Among them are Rita Doggett and her 8-year-old granddaughter, who attended a “honk and wave” event at a busy intersection in west Greensboro on May 1. Both women wore pins that displayed the candidate’s picture accompanied by the words, “I’m your girl.”

Rita Doggett said Clinton’s healthcare plan was the candidate’s biggest drawing card, “even though I think she’s got it all.”

“I am a survivor of domestic violence,” Doggett said. “I’ve had to deal with several health issues. I’ve had to have retinal surgery and a knee replacement. I’m uninsured. It’s hard to get a job with any health insurance.” Then, gesturing towards her granddaughter, Doggett added, “She thinks it’s wonderful that a girl could be president.”

Clinton’s campaign stops have also been well attended by men across the state.

During a passage of her speech in Mooresville that referenced Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans returning from deployment to find that their benefits are delayed, a masculine voice boomed from the crowd: “That’s bullshit.”

The candidate paused for a moment and replied, “Yes, I agree with that.”

In interviews with Clinton supporters, Obama’s recent troubles over controversial statements by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the candidate’s comment to a California audience that rural, white, working-class voters were “bitter” were rarely mentioned without prompting. One voter, a Mooresville substitute teacher named Wendy Liefert, has found in Clinton a happy medium in a political landscape rife with reasons for discontent.

“We need, in these times, someone who knows how to smooth diplomatic feathers,” she said. “Right now, we need a woman to go in and clean up a man’s mess.”

Both Wright’s statements and Obama’s “bitter” comment have given Liefert pause, and she said she would likely vote for Republican John McCain if Clinton does not receive the Democratic nomination.

“Where we are, it’s a great mix of people,” she said. “You have people with four-story homes and elevators, and you have people living in trailer parks. There’s people that run banks in this room. They want to say educated people are with Obama. There’s a lot of educated people here. I’m educated.”

If Clinton has clearly distinguished herself from Obama on trustworthiness and leadership for Liefert, on one particular issue she has found to her chagrin that none of the viable candidates has taken a stand to her liking.

“Unfortunately, none of the three candidates are any good on immigration,” she said. “They all want to let a takeover occur.”

Among Clinton’s supporters there were also those who said they had a favorable impression of Obama, but switched their support after taking a hard look at their choices.

“I like Obama’s enthusiasm, but I don’t think he has the track record,” said Kurt Wiesenberger, a human relations manager at Charlotte manufacturer SPX Corp. who lives in Mooresville. “In six months, he’ll be in over his head.” He added that Clinton “has a very large coalition politically on a national and international scale. That credibility takes time to build. We need it right now.”

Even among those who profess to take no offense over the Wright controversy and Obama’s gaffe about bitter parochial voters, the perception that they are liabilities appears to have nudged some into Clinton’s column. Mendy Ozan, a self-employed bookseller from Greensboro, showed up on May 2 to hear Clinton at Guilford College, a liberal oasis where support for Obama runs deep.

“In my heart, I feel like, ‘Go Obama,'” Ozan said. “I think he might be too much change. I would rather have some change than none at all. I’m kind of wimping out.” She said her primary objective is to see that McCain is defeated in November, adding that the Wright controversy was “just the kind of thing the media and the Republican Party can pick up and blow out of proportion like they did with the Swift Boat campaign.”

While Hillary Clinton has been hitting major population centers – Greensboro and Raleigh on May 2, and High Point on Monday – her husband made 15 stops on Sunday and Monday, rallying supporters and curiosity-seekers alike in high school gymnasiums from the mountains to the tidewater region, both in communities that are heavily white and those that are majority black.

“Look around at you,” Bill Clinton told an audience at Glenn High School in Kernersville on Sunday. “Here we are united across the lines of race, gender and age.”

While young people and African Americans were present, their support for Hillary Clinton was not a given. Matthew Hutton, a senior at Trinity High School who is the 1st vice president of the NC Teen Democrats, said he was voting for Obama. Terry Dennison, a chef who works for a company that provides food service for Polo Ralph Lauren in Greensboro, had already done so.

In what has become a standard stump speech, the former president played upon the theme of empathy, portraying his wife as a champion of ordinary folks, a dependable friend and, not the least important, a known quantity.

“If you’re looking for somebody that can prove that she can actually make changes in other people’s lives, I swear that if it weren’t so hot and I didn’t have another stop to make I could keep you here all night telling you personal stories of people,” Bill Clinton said. “If you want someone who understands what you’re going through, and can turn this economy around, give poor people a chance to work again and reclaim the future for our kids, she’s the one. If you want someone who you know can restore America’s standing in the world, end this war in Iraq and rebuild the military and take care of our veterans, she’s the one.

“She is in this race because of people like you and places like this,” he continued. “She’s been counted out more times than a cat’s got lives. People said, ‘Oh, she’s going down in California because all the famous people are against her.’ Well, they were and she won by ten points. She went on to campaign in Massachusetts, where both senators and the governor are against her. They were, but all the people in Massachusetts who needed a president were for her. She won by 15 points…. They outspent her three to one in Pennsylvania, but people like you in places like this said, ‘I don’t think so.'”

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