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North By Northwest With The Clintons: The End Of The Road In South Dakota

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People like you in places like this. This has been Bill Clinton's constant invocation in his picaresque travels campaigning on behalf of his wife in the Democratic primary states. Starting in New Hampshire, then through Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana, Montana and South Dakota, he has visited over 300 small towns at the grueling pace of an average five speeches a day. Clinton's is an astonishing accomplishment, which his occasional flashes of pique and anger, memory lapses and moments of outrageousness have sometimes obscured. Mostly ignored by the national media, the Bill Clinton events have often brought out most of the neighborhood, if for no other reason than that national elections usually pass such places by.

2008-06-03-otb_onthetrail_v2.jpgWhen Bill Clinton says that Hillary has progressed as far as she has "because of people like you in places like this," he's been talking to the old America-- the ever diminishing country of small farms, the towns where the elderly remain, the communities where most everyone is white, or like in Tejano Texas, where political loyalty runs deep. This is a vanishing world, a shrinking demographic. The new America is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-hued; it is, necessarily, younger; it is the people of all ages and backgrounds and educations who have what it takes to step out to meet our uncertain national future. But the people in the little, old towns Bill Clinton has been gracing with his presence are wonderful folks--funny, wise, generous of heart and spirit. "I'm probably wasting my vote," a retired schoolteacher says at the Watertown, South Dakota, rally Monday, "but Hillary's the best and I'm voting for her anyway." In Milbank, James Paul, a Korean War Veteran, says that he's sure Hillary will do something about the terrible statistic of eighteen veteran suicides a day. Then he tries to lighten the mood by quipping that he'll vote Tuesday "if I have the gas to get to the polls."

Commandeering flat-bed trucks and (sometimes to surprise mixed with pride) people's front porches, appearing before town monuments in uncertain weather, striding into masonic halls and small-college rec centers, rallying in grocery parking lots and neighborhood parks, Bill Clinton has held the kind of campaign events that have long been a part of the American landscape but will disappear in an election cycle or two, as one generation gives way to the next, and more importantly, as towns either die or re-invent themselves. Bill Clinton's small-town journeys have been one of the great stories of Election 2008, both as old-fashioned Americana and as the largely positive counterweight to the negativity he brought to Hillary's campaign.

Monday in the eastern Dakota towns north of Sioux Falls, Bill Clinton acknowledges that the Clintons have come to the end of a road. This is "the last day I'll be involved in politics of this kind," he says to the citizens of Milbank. Indeed the entire day has an elegiac air; there's an implicit "summing up" to the otherwise classic Clinton stump speech. The music, the introductions, the fanfare, the entourages and endorsers and local pols, the cadres of staff gathering books and memorabilia from the crowd to be signed and later returned--all have long gone. By this time, Bill Clinton, like so many campaigners, has put on a little weight. The vendors outside the venue are selling the Hillary tee shirts half-off. The Webster rally is at a typically imaginative location, the vintage square dance barn at the fairgrounds. "I like fairgrounds. I like old buildings," Clinton says first thing. The press area is large, and space has been marked out for the traveling press. But most of the space is never used. There has been a smattering of national media earlier in the day, but seemingly they have not continued on to Webster and Aberdeen.

Bill Clinton avers, as he often has in the past, and now with especial emotion, that it has been "the great honor of my political life" to campaign for Hillary. "I wouldn't give a rip if she was fifty points below in the polls," he says. He would still work for her. In a rare moment of public introspection, he says in Watertown that he was right for the 90s but not for now. For one thing, he doesn't have the understanding of banking that Hillary does and that any president in the future will need. But for all such occasional flashes and for all his sometimes brilliant explications of issues (no one can bring America's energy future home to the general public like Bill Clinton), he is, to this day, seemingly genuinely nonplussed by the ascendancy of Barack Obama.

At every event, Bill Clinton has taken his audience through the litany of Hillary's prospects. He has asserted that she has the popular vote. He has gone through a list of polls showing her beating John McCain better than Barack Obama would do. He has cited every Hillary-favorable forecast of electoral votes. "She has the best chance to win in November" has been his constant theme. He cannot understand how the American people have come to believe that there is "an inherent conflict between experience and change." With logic, he has asserted that a leader needs experience in order to effect change. And, of course, Hillary has always been the candidate with the most experience. What Bill Clinton has never understood, what John McCain does not understand, is that many Americans are not just eager for change but are desperate for Big Change--and to get that seismic shift in statecraft and society they are willing to put their trust in someone totally new and different. Emblematic of the future is the fact that the Bill Clinton Monday rallies have Obama interlopers. A motif of this race has been the ubiquity of Obama folk, and South Dakota is no exception. At Watertown, Charlotte and Hobart have already voted for Obama in Minnesota but have driven over out of a friendly curiosity to see the ex-President. They are lovely examples of a certain kind of Obama supporter, tolerant and non-judgmental, for they have many good things to say about their Republican governor. This isn't the partisan politics that has been so much a part of Bill Clinton's experience and history.

"There's a big place divide in America, too," Bill Clinton observes to the Dakota towns. He's talking about race and ethnicity, rich and poor, and to the usual list he rightly adds place. He's long been comfortable talking to small-town voters, and he could make a gift of this knowledge to the national campaign. Whether he will do this remains unclear. Monday night in Sioux Falls, Hillary Clinton, with her husband and daughter at her side, makes her final campaign appearance before 3500 loyalists. She gives no indication that she is ready to quit the race. But within hours she has returned to New York and is beginning to thank her close supporters. Within a day, even if Hillary Clinton wins South Dakota, which she well may, Barack Obama likely will have the support of all the superdelegates he will need to secure the nomination.

Only two years ago in his piece for The New York Times Sunday magazine on Mark Warner and other possible candidates for the Democratic nomination, Matt Bai describes the near-universal belief that Hillary Clinton would be a "virtually unstoppable force." Bai quotes Donna Brazile: "Bill Clinton is beloved, and to the extent that these voters have a chance to cast their votes early in the process, it will be very difficult to stop her nomination." The post-mortems of the HRC "unstoppable" strategy began a while ago, and Bill Clinton's role will be debated long into the future. The affection and respect of small-town America for him should not be lost in the calculation. Tellingly in several ways, Matt Bai in his 2006 piece discusses the Democratic Party hopefuls: the up-and-coming Mark Warner, the "netroots candidates" Wesley Clark and Russ Feingold, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, John Edwards and Al Gore. In the very last sentences of his long article, Bai, almost as an after-thought, raises the possibility of Barack Obama.