On the road with Bubba Bill as Clintons court blue-collar votes

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The Independent US

When the Little League batter hit a home run, there was nobody there to cheer for him. He looked around, mystified at the absence of applause, only to find that instead of watching the home team play baseball, the moms and pops of this small town were next door in the local school gymnasium waiting for Bill Clinton to arrive.

As is often the case the former president was running late, but the secret service agents, county sheriff and local police officers added a frisson of excitement for those waiting on the bleachers. Suddenly there he was. Dressed in an immaculate suit, pale blue tie and highly polished shoes he arrived surrounded by local worthies of the Democratic Party. Aside from a media minder, there was hardly a black face in the room, although more than half of North Carolina's electorate is black.

And that was the whole point of him being in Elkin, a town of 4,109 people, where 84.11 per cent of the population were white at the last count.

Bill Clinton is campaigning for his wife, Hillary, across rural America on what has been called the Bubba tour. White men in the South are often affectionately known as Bubbas and far from the public eye and the network media, Mr Clinton is harvesting votes among working-class whites, tapping a vein of uneasiness among voters at the prospect of voting for a black candidate. Mr Clinton has himself at times stirred racial animosity and become in the process a distraction for his wife's campaign.

In Elkin, as in the other small communities, the audience was mostly female and elderly, the bedrock of Hillary Clinton's refuse-to-die campaign. Sherry Master, 55, had tears in her eyes as she looked out at the former president. "It's time that a woman was given a voice in running this country," she said, "I'm going to vote for Hillary or nobody, certainly not that shifty Obama."

"She's the sort of person who ought to be president," said Carrie Bats, aged 60, "she's tough enough."

George Wollin, 64, a lifelong Republican and still unsure who he intends to vote for in the presidential election, wondered why Bill Clinton caused so much excitement. "There's a sexual pull about him that's undeniable," he said. "I mean, look at the audience, what's going through their minds?"

Mr Clinton has emerged as his wife's main strategist in recent weeks. Despite a quadruple heart bypass, he pushes himself hard on the campaign trail, attending up to seven events a day in gymnasiums, town halls and churches that go on late into the night. He is also the main guiding force behind Mrs Clinton as she makes yet another attempt to deny Barack Obama the Democratic nomination.

Much of Mrs Clinton's success in winning four of the last six primaries has been attributed to her husband's aggressive campaigning style. He inserted his own aides into the campaign headquarters and insisted it remain on the offensive against Mr Obama.

Mr Clinton has also courted controversy and turned off black voters in droves. He recently said the Obama campaign had "played the race card on me", and was then attacked for his "bizarre" behaviour by the highest black Democratic leader in Congress, James Clyburn, who accused him of marginalising Mr Obama.

In Elkin, Mr Clinton was introduced as the president who knew how to balance the budget and for raising the incomes of millions of Americans by more than $3,000 per annum. Then he spoke without notes for an hour, describing how the average American family now spends an extra $450 a year on petrol and an extra $250 a year on food while health costs and the cost of going to college have doubled.

He described how 90 per cent of the benefits of George Bush's tax cuts have gone to 10 per cent, but failed to mention that he himself was one of those beneficiaries or that he has earned some $109m since leaving office.

Instead he spoke of his first salary, $16,000, as well as the first house he bought, for $20,000 and how tough it is now to make car and mortgage payments.

Holding the audience in the palm of his hand, Mr Clinton gave five reasons why his wife would make the best president, covering energy costs, the environment, the economy, health care and the war in Iraq. It was a bravura performance, for which he would normally expect a fee of $250,000.

But now the priority is getting Hillary, and himself back in the White House. In his down-home style, he explained how all the problems of smalltown America would soon vanish under a president Hillary. He asked whether people were concerned that petrol now costs nearly $4 a gallon and diesel even more.

"You betcha," said the man beside me as the former president went on to explain how Hillary knew a man who is road-testing a vehicle that can do 100 miles to the gallon.

More snake oil salesman than former president, he painted a scenario that had the audience on its feet. The amazing 100mpg car would cause America's oil consumption to drop precipitously, he said. It would help bring "green jobs" in smalltown America by recycling old cars and put "tons of people to work".

After some handshakes and autographs he was gone, heading for the next event, some 60 miles away where he arrived well after 10 pm. In Elkin, meanwhile the Little League team had demolished the opposition.

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