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Bill Clinton: Small-town ambassador

In 1900 presidential candidate William Jennings Bryant gave a speech here.  After that there was kind of a dry spell. Until this weekend.

A stop at a firehouse in Kendallville was the second of six solo appearances for President Bill Clinton on Saturday. The day, a 14-hour marathon that included six rallies capped off by a joint appearance with his wife, was typical for the 61-year old former president, who will clock almost a hundred rallies in North Carolina and Indiana alone by primary day.

Kendallville, a manufacturing town in a typically conservative part of the state, is just the kind of voter quarry that Bill Clinton loves to mine.  The county, once a major supplier of car parts to Detroit, has hemorrhaged jobs with the decline of the auto industry.  Kendallville is over 95% white and only 12% of its residents are college-educated (less than half the national average).  Democrats have been close to an endangered species here as well; George W. Bush carried the area 70-30% over John Kerry in 2004.

"This is Hillary Country," says Noble County Democratic Chairwoman Carmen Darland as she surveys the crowd. Darland, an Obama supporter, says the adoring audience in Kendallville is mostly made up of Hoosiers who already lean heavily towards Clinton. But the unlikely event of a visit from a former president has brought curious Democrats out of the woodwork who have not cast votes in decades.

"I don't think this is about conversion," she says as the president takes the stage to an eruption of cheers. "But it's definitely about getting out the vote."

"And" she adds, "we're getting a lot of people who have stayed home for a long time. "

'Since we can't have Bill again, vote Hillary'
In the small towns of North Carolina and Indiana, the former president's venues for his hour-long stump speeches have looked more like William Jennings Bryant's than like his wife's. He has spoken in fire houses, train depots, baseball diamonds, town hall verandas, and even on the front porches of residents' homes. Crowds range from a hundred to a thousand, most of them older white voters who remember the economic prosperity of the 1990s with a fondness that warms their support for Bill's famous spouse.  (A sign in Lenoir, North Carolina reads "Since we can't have Bill again, vote Hillary!")

The rigorous schedule of stops in rural, often heavily Republican regions is not unique to this primary sprint.  Clinton did a comparable number of stops in Texas, where he courted Hispanic voters with pickup-truck speeches. And he boasts that, in Pennsylvania, his wife won by a wide margin in every county where he spoke at a neighborhood front-porch rally.

Campaign aides say the president is the one insisting on the packed campaign days, often lobbying to pile on more and more stops in small towns. And it's clear from his new self-appointed title -- "Ambassador to rural America" -- that he's perfectly content to attend the pig-pickin's and agricultural expo centers where his events are held.

Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina political analyst and an expert on southern politics, notes the extraordinary pace and reach of Clinton's stumping on his wife's behalf in America's small communities.  "It clearly extends the reach of the campaign," he says, echoing Darland's observation that the former president's mere presence reaps plenty of fresh ears that might otherwise be uninvolved.  "Once they're there," he says of the small-town audiences, "he can deliver a message."

And with Bill Clinton's jam-packed schedule, that message falls on ears in more places than his wife and her rival – combined – have visited.  In North Carolina alone, the former president has done 43 public stops to date.

His wife has done twenty; Barack Obama, a mere dozen.

The disruption factor
The stages that Clinton takes are in rural counties all over both crucial primary states, most of which — like Kendallville — are hardly used to being courted by political superstars.  Members of the local media in these towns often boast about the last big-time pol to speak there.  (Answers have ranged from Bobby Kennedy, to Dwight Eisenhower, to Abraham Lincoln.)

Removed from the submersion in political chatter that might characterize bigger cities, Clinton is also insulated from much of the controversy that has surrounded his role in his wife's campaign.

Experts debate whether the man now routinely described as "the purple-faced president" or the "unruly surrogate-in-chief"  has scuttled his wife's campaign or just routinely disrupted it.

But his rash of outbursts fails to resonate with many of the supporters who wait — sometimes for hours on end — for a glimpse of the one-time commander in chief.  The same chorus echoes among voters in North Carolina and Indiana when asked if he has hurt his wife's campaign with controversial remarks: That's just politics.  "That stuff is a waste of time," scoffs one longtime Clinton supporter in the audience in Lebanon, Ind.

Just as many are only fleetingly aware of Clinton's finger-wagging episodes and rhetorical acrobatics.  "I just don't read the bad things about him!" says longtime supporter Joanne Campbell, a retiree in Boone, N.C..

An at-home feeling
Guillory agrees that, although for those voters who know that Clinton's stint as a surrogate has been speckled with controversy, his outreach to their small communities softens his prickly flare-ups.

"The celebrity of having a former president in their town overrides some of the details" of Clinton's less savory moments, Guillory says.

There's no shortage of celebrity to Clinton's visits to small towns, where residents often camp out in lawn chairs along the street to catch a glimpse of the president's motorcade.  Parents even sometimes dress their children in their Sunday best for the occasion.

For his part, Clinton, whose folksy outings to remote locales have been painted by some observers as a demotion, says that he feels right at home.

"I grew up in the country," he told the crowd gathered under a sparking spring sky in Lenoir, NC Sunday. "I know where I am. And I want to be right here."