05/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Clintons Tagteam North Carolina Undecideds; Little Sign Of Obama

"Our friends in the media like to show all those people telling Hillary Clinton to quit," the field organizer tells Lenoir, North Carolina Sunday afternoon. "But you're going to be the next Rhode Island." The town of Lenoir chuckles at quit and stares blank-faced at Rhode Island, likely thinking, he said he weren't from these parts. I'm thinking whoa! this is ambitious. But then I've known ever since April 18 when Ace Smith, Clinton's North Carolina state director, spun "lowered expectations" in a revealing way that she was going for gold here. Winning North Carolina "would be the biggest upset of the century," Smith told reporters. Smith, who engineered Clinton's wins in California and Texas, clearly had been engaging in some pleasant woolgathering. But now that the race has tightened to under ten points, perhaps three is indeed a lucky number.

When Bill Clinton finally (as usual, hours late) greets Lenoir, he says much the same thing. "Hillary is in this race today with a genuine chance to win because of people like you and places like this. It has been one of the great honors of my life to campaign on her behalf in small-town America from the beginning. It's towns like this that brought her back from thirteen points down in a miracle victory in just two days in New Hampshire. Towns like this."

Towns like this. Here is the Clinton strategy for winning North Carolina. Although Barack Obama had television ads running in NC by the end of March, Hillary Clinton was already campaigning on the ground in the Tar Heel State during the run-up to the Pennsylvania primary. This late in the race, the law of inexorable consequence has set in. The way one primary unfolds determines the parameters of the next. Therefore, because Senator Clinton was always going to win Pennsylvania, she could afford to begin her North Carolina campaign early. By now she has stumped in three to four times more North Carolina cities and towns than Senator Obama. Moreover, Bill Clinton, widely disparaged in the national media and outside states in-play, is Hillary Clinton's stealth weapon in North Carolina. As Bill says to Lenoir, "I went to 47 towns in Pennsylvania, 39 in Indiana, and by the time I've done here, I'm gonna top 50 in North Carolina." That's right, fifty, at the rate of five to seven a day. The day before primary, Bill Clinton will make nine--yes, nine--campaign stops in small towns across northern North Carolina. After the Jefferson-Jackson dinner Sunday night in Indiana, Senator Clinton flew back to the Tar Heel State. The three Clintons (Chelsea has been here, too) are campaigning so fiercely because they think Hillary can win North Carolina--or at least achieve a narrow loss.

Inexorable consequence has set the parameters of Barack Obama's campaign in North Carolina. Because he has had a strong and continuing Tar Heel lead, he has spent more time in Indiana--a decision he had to make because he lost Pennsylvania. His counting on a win in North Carolina has been both a plus--because he had the freedom to spend less time here--and a minus, because the consequence has been that, unlike the Clinton campaign, his has been a North Carolina fly-over, a drive-through. The Obama campaign is bound now by another inexorable consequence. Like a rock star, Barack Obama has a large devoted following. But the sheer mass of this support walls him in, preventing him from making much contact with the rest of the voting population. In a strange way, moreover, the passion of his supporters has sucked the air out of his campaign. This phenomenon was on display Friday night at the Obama rally in Charlotte's Cricket Arena. Circling the arena, I realized that more than a few of the attendees I had met elsewhere in the state. Since North Carolina is not that large geographically, supporters had driven to Charlotte to see him again, as undoubtedly they will do Monday when Michelle Obama holds two Tar Heel rallies. Saturday afternoon at the Clinton rally at the Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Mooresville, I met a teacher who said she had wanted to hear Senator Obama and had driven by the Cricket Arena on Friday and seeing the number of cars in the lots had assumed that the event was full. But the Obama event was not full--there were plenty of empty seats--reminding me a bit of the last Obama rally in Houston before the Texas primary. This is the problem that for the future is in some sense Senator Obama's biggest. He has to find a way out of the circle of devotion.

If Hillary Clinton wins or comes close in North Carolina, it will be because of towns like Lenoir. Calling itself "the gateway to the mountains," Lenoir is about as close as any candidate is going to get to rural North Carolina. Saturday night in my Charlotte hotel bar, a group of patrons watching Fox News, about fell out laughing when Major Garrett, reporting after a Clinton rally in Gastonia, called the town "rural North Carolina." Gastonia, home to a literary, arts and music scene, is a small city from which people commute to jobs in Charlotte. But two hours away Lenoir, which leads to the hills and the hollers, is like a house that has settled gently on its foundations. In fact, many of the homes still have outbuildings; the nicest of them, in that pre-war (World, II) way, wear a dignified modesty that declines to lord itself over its neighbors. Arriving early and exploring, I wonder at the silence--could the slow death of the furniture industry have killed the place? Surely not, for a wine bistro sits on a downtown corner.

Then I park and climb the hill to the house where the "front porch rally" is going to occur. Where the hill flattens out, just beyond a church, I find the town of Lenoir. Everybody has come out to hear Bill Clinton. People wait patiently under the hot sun in front of the white clapboard house about to be honored by a presidential visit or sit beneath the century-old Spanish oak trees on the slope across the street. For the next two hours, I visit with the citizens of Lenoir, more than one of whom says, with a laugh, "You have to understand--nobody ever comes here. This is a big thing for us." One lady confides that she has "driven over from twenty-two miles" for a family birthday party, but now the party's canceled and the family's here on the slope "because it's Bill!"

This is what the plethora of recent commentary on Bill Clinton's role in his wife's campaign fails to convey: the man brings out the town and he gets out the vote. The Clinton campaign has made many stupid mistakes, but stumping Bill Clinton through Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania isn't one of them. Moreover, like in Asheboro (on which I previously reported), in Lenoir the crowd is young and old, rich and poor, black and white. There's a lot of longevity in the mountains, so four generations of families have arranged themselves in the shade of the Spanish oaks. On the sidewalk at the bottom, in wheelchairs and lawn chairs, sit great-grandmothers, often minding the youngest children. Above them perch the sixty and seventy year-olds, and that's where I plant myself, with Hazel and Horace Green and their friends. At the top of the hill are the young marrieds and babies. Boys jump the hill and race down past the church and out of sight. Dogs bark every time somebody thinks he or she spots the Clinton SUV. Daughters run small errands for mothers and grandmothers.

The slope is giving me a Lenoir opinion of politicians. "Didn't like him [Bill Clinton] 'til I read his books," Horace says. He thinks for a long minute. "He did some good. Of course, he did some bad." Neighbors nod. "They's all like that," Hazel says. "All of 'em," somebody adds, from above. Most of the talk is about Google. Horace tells me that Google has bought 217 acres in the county to build a new campus and has promised to hire 200 local people. "They say they're gonna pay real good," he says. The humphs seem to say that Lenoir will believe that when they see it. After awhile, Hazel corrects her husband without seeming to. Google has kept buying more and more land. Talk moves on to whether folks were born Democrat or Republican. One well-to-do lady in her late sixties says, "My mother-in-law would kill me if she even knew I was here." A Republican nevertheless she plans to vote for Hillary Clinton if she is running in November. Since Campbell County is about fifty-fifty each party, quite a few of the slope crowd are Republicans. And quite a few of the Democrats are undecided. I've been on the campaign trail so long that by now all I have to do is ask "supporter or inquirer?" and I can tell immediately from a facial expression which the person is.

The North Carolina polls have the undecided vote for the Tuesday Democratic primary at ten to twelve percent. That has felt about right to me. Over the weekend, just like in Iowa, many of the undecideds decided at the eleventh hour it was about time to make up their minds and headed out to do so. Saturday and Sunday provided opportunities to see a Clinton; Obama, however, was not in the state. At several events, I met undecideds who settled on Clinton once they had seen her, none of whom had yet seen Senator Obama. At the race car rally in Mooresville, for example, a group of school teachers told me that they had wanted to see both candidates in person before deciding. But having just watched Clinton, and with no chance of seeing Obama in the flesh, they were going to vote for Clinton. This is the dynamic in Lenoir, as well. Obama is a rara avis--people just don't know much about him, although one lady says that she knows "one or two people for him." As a consequence of his absence from the state over the weekend, the undecided vote in North Carolina is therefore likely to break for Clinton.

When Bill Clinton arrives, he mentions Google's coming to Lenoir and he predicts other good things for the community. "You mark my words--in the next ten years there will be a huge resurgence of family farms in America with sustainable agriculture selling the food within fifty miles of where it's grown--you watch. You'll do it--for economic reasons, for environmental reasons, for [good] health reasons. So you are on the cutting edge of a great wave. You remember ten years from now when it happens where you heard it first." This is old-school Bill Clinton, at his intelligent best; but few people are listening. Not too many are going to remember where they heard it first. Really, people have come out to see him, to be able to say they've seen him; and quickly they're satisfied. Little conversations have sprung up all over the slope in competition with Clinton.

The ex-President shamelessly courts Lenoir. "We're [Hillary and I] a little too connected to folks like you. They merciless--unmercifully poke fun of me about this. 'Bill Clinton is out there in the country--exiled to the country.' I grew up in the country--I know where I am--I wanna be right here. (He gets a big laugh. ) Thank you. One of these people wrote this sorta snide article about our campaign in one of the eastern publications last week and he said, you know, 'the next thing Bill Clinton will do--before you know it--he'll be takin' Wal-Mart greeters to the polls.' You see. That guy [Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker ] thought he was puttin' me down, but I thought he was givin' me a good idea."

Lenoir loves the story even as they know the storyteller is full of bull. After all, Bill Clinton, for as much as they like him, is one of those political people. In the end, however, Clinton has done Lenoir the courtesy of showing up, and they're going to return the favor with votes. Some of the older folk have been talking about how elections used to be "back in the day" when it cost a politician $25 and a bottle of whiskey for a vote. Perhaps with the old ways on her mind, one of the octogenarians hails me from her chair. "Take this over to him, and get him to sign it." She waves a yellow card. A generation younger makes me her girl--whether servant or daughter, I can't decide. "I voted for him twice, but I'm not voting for her unless he signs this card." She's peremptory, snappish. "He owes me." I demur, saying that I'm the press, and Bill Clinton doesn't much like press. "Go on now. Go on." She thrusts at me the yellow card.

So at the end of the front porch rally in Lenoir I find myself, yellow card in hand, clinging to the rope line. Procedure has changed on the trail, however. Bill Clinton has minders now. As three campaign aides emerge from the house, the nearest county sheriff's officer, with a knowing smirk for the rope line, moves his vehicle so that it sits athwart the Clinton SUV. Now Bill Clinton has no easy way to reach us. The eagerest of Lenoir shout and wave, and Clinton waves back, but quickly he is moved into the waiting car. He has three more porch events further along I-40, and it's already after 7 PM.

Leaving Lenoir to follow after to Newton, I'm thinking about all the changes Google will bring to Campbell County. I wonder if Google knew when buying all that land that the North Carolina Klan, or what's left of it, is only one county over. Google may find itself changing that part of the landscape as well. Whether or not Bill Clinton will be able to garner enough votes from small-town North Carolina to give his wife a win or a near-win is less clear. While there has been a huge increase in early voting in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, where a large part of Obama's African-American base resides, there has been no such surge in the eastern more Clinton-friendly part of the state. In Catawba County, near Campbell County, for example, fewer than 6,000 of more than 99,000 registered voters had voted through Saturday. Clinton's base of small-town and rural whites, partly out of historical attitudes towards national politics, is not as enthused and passionate about the election. Even with the undecideds breaking in her favor, almost every single one of those small-town registered Democrats would have to get to the polls on Tuesday for her to win North Carolina. Having seen the speed with which Lenoir moves, I deem such a surge unlikely. Lenoir has had its own value, however. The town's coming out Sunday to hear Bill Clinton is a piece of political Americana that will be gone as quickly as those new-century truck farms move in. One of the great pleasures of the campaign trail, therefore, is an afternoon like Lenoir.