Hillary's Secret Weapon For Rural America

Former President Bill Clinton gestures to the crowd as he campaigns for his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., at Dickenson College in Carlisle, Pa., Thursday, March 27, 2008. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

Until Bill Clinton came to town, the last time the citizens of Washington, Pennsylvania saw a president was nearly 50 years ago, when John F. Kennedy touched down there as part of his campaign.

The story isn't much different in South Bend, Indiana, where Clinton's visit last week had residents talking about Robert Kennedy's visit 40 years earlier.

It hasn't always been easy for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign to decide how best to deploy Mr. Clinton on the campaign trail. Some have worried that the former president could overshadow his wife, and there were also concerns that his aggressive advocacy for the former first lady could hurt more than it helped. After Mr. Clinton made comments ahead of the South Carolina primary that some found racially insensitive, analysts were talking about his tarnished legacy and asking whether he'd inadvertently given a bump to rival Barack Obama.

But in the past few weeks, the Clinton campaign seems to have settled on a consistent strategy for the former president: Keep him largely out of the national spotlight while deploying him to small cities and towns like Washington, PA and South Bend, where figures of his stature are rarely seen.

Clinton himself acknowledged his role at a recent stop in the blue-collar town of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, where he called himself the campaign's "rural hitman."

Putting Mr. Clinton to work on what he calls the "secondary circuit," while his wife works larger markets, is a smart move by the Clinton campaign, said Philadelphia-based Democratic political analyst Larry Ceisler.

"When these small towns get a president of the United States, it really gets people juiced up," Ceisler said. "He's certainly been a negative at times on macro political stage, but in micro and personal campaign there's none better. She's lucky to have him."

Mr. Clinton is effective in such settings because rural Americans relate to the former president, said Steve Jarding, a Democratic political consultant who has focused on rural areas.

"It's the 'boy from hope' stuff, the fact that he grew up in a small town," Jarding said. "Someone like John Kerry, and I mean this with respect, looked to people in rural America like a blueblood. With Clinton, I really do get a sense that they believe he feels their pain."

Clinton still sometimes makes national news - he recently suggested, for example, that claims that the Obama/Clinton battle is hurting the Democratic Party are "a bunch of bull" and argued that those who believe otherwise should "chill out." But he has largely steered clear of the sorts of controversial statements that made headlines early in the campaign.

"There's this weird line he has to walk that no one else has to walk," said Democratic strategist and CBS News political analyst Joe Trippi. "People might expect [the spouse of a presidential candidate] to say something unflattering about one of the other candidates, but they don't expect that sort of thing from the former president of the United States, a man who is the biggest Democrat alive in a lot of ways. You don't expect him to say things that could be seen as negative or rough and tumble politics, so when he does it's news."

When Clinton sticks to the script, by contrast, his appearances don't make national news. But they do get significant, usually positive play in local media, resulting in coverage that can cut through the noise of an extended political campaign.

"Washington, Pennsylvania may only have about 25,000 people, but it has a newspaper that goes to the whole county," said Ceisler, a Washington native. "That kind of coverage can make a difference."

"He's being used as a mobilization force," said University of Pennsylvania political scientist Richard Johnston. "He is going to the parts of the state where in some sense his wife has her base."

And while Clinton's controversial comments earlier in the campaign - among them a reference to Obama's positions as a "fairytale" - may have diminished the former president in the eyes of some urban voters, they didn't significantly damage his popularity with their rural counterparts, according to Jarding.

"It was seen as more offensive in urban areas, and as political football in punditry," he said. "It didn't seem to have the same resonance in these rural areas."

Mr. Clinton can be particularly effective when discussing economic issues, Jarding adds, and thus becomes a particularly valuable surrogate in a depressed economy. But while the former president's rural touch can be a boon for the Clinton campaign, one damaging sound bite could still undo his efforts in parts of America that usually go unseen by former presidents.

"For all the help he's giving in terms of the 3,200 people who see him that day," Trippi said, "you have to worry that it's not going to be worth what 3 million people see that night on cable or on the Evening News."
By Brian Montopoli