WINTERSVILLE, Ohio -– As the doors to the Indian Creek High School gymnasium opened and people began streaming in to wait for former President Bill Clinton to appear Thursday afternoon, a country tune that matched the brooding gray skies outside played on the loudspeakers.
It’s been a long hard ride
Got a ways to go
But this is still the place
That we all call home
It wasn't your typical political rally tune. But the chorus from the Dierks Bentley song, "Home," was fitting for this part of Ohio, long economically depressed after the steady collapse of the steel industry and other manufacturing that supported much of the region.
And somehow, on Thursday, Clinton tapped into the complex feelings that have swirled around places like this for years.
"The real problem here is … we're not well yet from this horrible thing that happened to us," Clinton said, referring to the 2008 financial crisis and the slow recovery. "You know it and I know it. There's still too many people that haven't gotten a pay raise in a decade. There's still too many people who have been out of work too long.
"There's still too many people that aren't sure they fit in any scenario of the future," he said.
Republicans had pounced on Clinton's remark earlier in the day, near Cleveland at a rally with musician Bruce Springsteen, that the economy is still not "fixed." And Clinton's comment here in the heart of the Rust Belt was a variation of the same theme.
But it was part of a bigger argument, pioneered by Clinton, that President Barack Obama needs more time to turn things around. That argument was the core of Clinton's masterful speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last month, and it was helping Obama gain a lot of traction in the race against Republican Mitt Romney until the president decided to phone in his performance at the first debate in Denver.
Since then, Romney has overtaken Obama in national polls, key swing states like Ohio have tightened, and there are reports of the Obama campaign defensively circling wagons around a few key states (Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin), and of the Romney campaign moving resources out of states once thought to be competitive like North Carolina.
Clinton hasn't given up on making his argument that Obama needs more time, even as the president himself has pivoted to focusing on women's issues, in an attempt to drive his advantage back up to what it was before Denver. But to make the pitch to a crowd in a place like this, Clinton set it all up with an extraordinary bit of political speechifying.
Here, speaking in a place that has been uniquely downbeat for many years, the 66-year old former president showed why he is unparalleled in his ability to connect.
"You know that American life expectancy is still going up among all categories of people except the people I grew up with, the people like the people who live here: white non-college educated workers," he said.
"If you think about it, it's because the immigrants and people who are newly empowered over the last 30 years -- African-Americans, Hispanics -- they have a lot of problems too, but they think tomorrow can be better than yesterday. But those of us who grew up in the great American middle class and thought it was still going to be there for us forever, and then had our dreams dashed, they're not sure," Clinton said.
He talked about how smoking rates and diabetes diagnoses are up among the white working class, along with drug use among the young. He said nobody had noticed the trend because "it was written as a health care article instead of an economics article."
"But these people are really dying young of a broken heart," Clinton said, his shock of white hair floating above that familiar face, now thinner, less ruddy than it was when he was in office.
And then his voice got so low, so husky, as Clinton bent over the lectern, that it sounded like he might cry.
"I'm just telling you, it couldn't be fixed in four years," he said.
He raised his voice back up, full and clear.
"And I believe the president has done a way better job than he has gotten credit for," Clinton said. "I'm telling you we're coming out of this. It's going to get better. You will feel it."
Bill Laughlin, a 62-year old recently retired civil engineer, agreed with Clinton.
"I see the direction Obama is going in and it takes time," Laughlin said. "It's going to take a while to get people back to work."
Laughlin told The Huffington Post that if you're a young person in this part of Ohio, "you want to get out. You want a future."
Laughlin's 29-year old son can't find steady work, he said, adding that most job openings are for 32 hours a week with no health insurance. Sitting on a bleacher as he waited for Clinton to speak, Laughlin said things are "worse now" than they were in the early '80s, when steel mill closures dragged down the local economy.
But Laughlin said he was still behind Obama. To grow economically "as fast as [Romney] wants to," it would not help the middle class," he said.
"I think Obama's on the right track because he's going slower but it's consistent," Laughlin said.
Royce Browder, a 69-year old retired Presbyterian minister who was general presbyter for the Ohio Upper Valley for seven years, agreed. Polls showing Romney surging to a lead in the last week or so " is just dissatisfaction that things didn't go as well as people hoped," said Browder.
"I bet Obama is dissatisfied too. But I think he's the best hope for the next four years," Browder said.
But not all at the rally were as supportive of Obama.
"He hasn't really done anything," said Rose Patrella, 82, who identified herself as a life-long Democrat, and whose husband worked in a steel mill for 38 years.
Patrella said she was undecided, but added that Romney "looks presidential to me."
After Clinton finished his 40-minute speech, thick with numbers, examples and policy, the crowd filed back outside. It was raining, and the temperature had dropped at least 10 degrees.
The great communicator had given a fabulous speech, but despite that, it still felt more like winter than it did when people walked in.