On the road with Bill Clinton

April 17, 2008 6:41:06 PM PDT
Bill Clinton has been spending a lot of time in places many presidential campaigns pass by. His rigorous schedule in recent weeks has had him pinballing across Pennsylvania. Many days have him making a half-dozen stops in small college field houses, American Legion posts and high school gyms spread over hundreds of miles.

On Thursday, his itinerary brought him to two towns in lumber country (Warren and Brookville), two cities in the heart of elk-watching country (St. Marys and Clearfield), Pennsylvania's fourth-largest city (Erie) and a college town halfway across the state (Lock Haven).

A typical stop includes a long wait for spectators; the former president is almost always running late. But in a tight Democratic race where every vote counts, Clinton has made visiting dozens of out-of-the-way places his priority and he's creating lots of excitement among the faithful.

--- First stop Thursday morning: Penn State Behrend's campus in Erie. About 500 people gathered to see the former president, many of them college students who waited patiently while sipping on coffees and bottled water. Some passed the time chanting "We are Penn State!"

Local Democratic politicians, including Erie County Executive Chris Collins, spoke before the former president arrived.

Clinton was more than an hour late, but no one seemed to mind. He was introduced to the crowd by longtime friend and former "Cheers" star Ted Danson, who called Hillary Clinton "the most authentic person I have ever met."

"That's very different from the image they've tried to create, isn't it?" Clinton responded.

Clinton spoke in the college's Erie Hall, which was less than half full. On Friday, Hillary Clinton's opponent, Barack Obama, was expected to speak at the school's Athletic Center, which is expected to be filled to its 1,800-seat capacity.

Muna Aitouma, 23, a freshman majoring in pharmacy, came to hear what Clinton had to say about Iraq. Aitouma moved with her family to the U.S. from Iraq in 2002.

"I want them to make it safe in Iraq," she said. "If it's going to be safe in Iraq without (U.S. soldiers) then that's OK."

Many of those in attendance were planning to attend Obama's speech Friday.

--- Clinton was nearly 90 minutes late for an early afternoon stop at Warren High School's gymnasium.

The real excitement came after the former president's speech. Several hundred elementary school students and their teachers had been waiting for more than two hours outside the school to get a glimpse of Clinton.

The long wait did nothing to detract from the spectacle.

After his speech, Clinton left the school and walked across a street to greet the crowd, which started to sing "God Bless America." Many of the students held handmade signs, colored with crayons, that read "Welcome President Clinton."

"This is so awesome. It's a great experience for the students and the community to have him here," said Nancy Latimer, a teacher at the nearby Warren County Career Center.

The visit also attracted hundreds of others. Wendy Dunn, 57, from nearby Jamestown, N.Y., was wearing a Hillary Clinton button, and holding several others.

Her favorite showed a picture of President Bush, with the words "Good riddance. January 20, 2009."

--- Speakers loudly broadcast John Mellencamp's "Small Town" and the theme from the movie "Rocky" as Clinton finished up his speech Thursday afternoon in the Elk County town of St. Marys. There was plenty of excitement in the crowd outside American Legion Post No. 103 around 3 p.m., even though Clinton was more than an hour behind schedule.

Hundreds stood on the post's lawn and the crowd overflowed into the street. Some even brought their own lawn chairs to hear Clinton address the gathering from the front steps of the three-story building. The post is surrounded by homes on a residential street, and some people even stood on their front porches.

"I think (the candidates) need to have support, even from the rural areas. We're small, no one notices us, we get skipped over all the time," said Maryann Kunselman, 61, of Ridgway, who was wearing a Hillary Clinton button.

She said she believes Hillary Clinton has more experience than Obama, but she'll support him if he wins the Democratic nomination.

Interspersed in the crowd were several young people wearing Obama stickers and holding his signs. But instead of waving them in the air, the Obama supporters kept the signs at their sides.

--- As the afternoon wore on, the former president fell further behind schedule and was more than two hours late for a gathering in Brookville.

Yet nearly 600 people crowded the intersection of Butler and North Barnett Streets to hear Bill Clinton's campaign pitch for his wife.

Standing on the concrete porch of a two-story house that was located catty-corner to a baseball field in the heart of a residential neighborhood, Clinton received another boisterous welcome.

Kathy McCabe, a 53-year-old teacher in Brookville who is a Republican, said she waited more than three hours to see Clinton, and got to shake his hand.

McCabe said she liked the idea of the former president passing through her town, and said she planned on voting for the Democratic nominee for president, regardless of whether it is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

"That was a thrill," McCabe said. "He just seemed so humble. He take the time signing. It is really a great day for Brookville, Pennsylvania.

"This is the opportunity of a lifetime to meet a president in a small town."

Jyoti Patel, a 54-year-old homemaker and Republican who has lived in Brookville for 26 years, said she is undecided on who to vote for.

"I'd like to see the change to Democrat and, whatever their promise, I hope they can deliver."

--- "We want Bill! We want Bill," the crowd of about 1,000 chanted in the stuffy Clearfield Middle School gym about 7 p.m. Thursday. Clinton was 90 minutes late.

He arrived soon afterward, starting an otherwise typical stump speech by waxing about his tales of travel.

"I've been behind logging trucks ... every experience you've had on a Pennsylvania curvy road, I've had it today," Clinton said as the anxious crowd laughed. "And you know what? I liked it. It's beautiful and I feel at home."


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