PERRYSBURG, OH— Pulling into the parking lot at Owens Community College in Perrysburg Thursday, I briefly wondered if I was in the right spot. I cruised through a roundabout, in the shadow of a painted silo and a giant windmill— the tableau of rural past and green energy future no doubt a deliberate backdrop for an Obama campaign event featuring former President Bill Clinton.
The rock star of the campaign trail was still on his way as one straggling supporter from nearby Maumee and I squinted at each other’s smartphone maps to locate the rally. We found the school’s half-full gymnasium, blocked off at half-court by a red vinyl curtain descended from the ceiling.
Outside, there was no line, but there was a bit of a ruckus as two young people protested their removal from the rally. Kelli Miller, a 28-year-old student, said she and 25-year-old Nick Osberger were told to leave the event after she wrote “I will not support Obama” on the signage provided at the rally and displayed it. A Gary Johnson supporter, Miller objected to not being able to voice her political opinion at a political rally at the school she attends.
“This is my school,” she said. “It’s my constitutional right to express my beliefs, you know? I just held the sign.”
I asked a student working on a laptop right outside the gym if she was planning to go to the rally. “I’ve got class,” she said with a shrug.
Inside the gym, I moved past the curtain to the waiting crowd doing the usual milling and half-hearted chants you get before the headliner arrives. John Welch, a schoolteacher from Moline, was cautiously optimistic about the president’s chances in the battleground state.
“I hope we’re edging a little ahead, it feels like,” he said, adding his objections to Mitt Romney. “I don’t see how he relates to anyone in this room…someone who worries about the price of gas and milk.”
As Clinton took the stage, the crowd, estimated at 1,900 by the Toledo Blade, perked up. He addressed them with a smile and his patented husky, trail voice, damaged from workin’ so hard for you. He ticked off his recent campaign stops, saying he’d lost his voice for “a good cause” before announcing to the crowd he was “honored to be in Pennsylvania for President Obama.”
“OHIO,” the crowd shouted at Clinton’s Bidenism as he corrected himself and pivoted into his stump speech. A prologue on Hurricane Sandy got a round of cheers for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Clinton was best when he was affably sarcastic, delivering barbs with an aww-shucks, amirite shrug. His impression of Romney when asked for details on his economics plan, for instance: “I’m a business guy,” Clinton said, with a tug at his lapels, getting laughs from the audience.
He reserved his harshest criticism for Romney’s position on the auto bailout and the Republican challenger’s ads on the subject. The crowd, gathered just minutes from a Chrysler machining plant, was familiar with the ad, many finishing Clinton’s sentence with “China” as Clinton repeated Romney’s charge that Jeep is considering sending production there.
This was the most effective part of the speech, but it look Clinton plenty of time to get there, running through a litany of other issues, including a minutes-long discussion of Medicare Advantage’s structure over the last decade. He indulges his wonky style on the trail just as he did in his State of the Union addresses. This was no mere sprinkling of stats but a slow-moving Sandy of policy numbers and explanations, marked by the occasional odd assertion.
Clinton, free-styling on Obama’s claim to be an all-of-the-above energy guy, said Obama doesn’t advocate “taking away incentives for natural gas and oil,” just keeping incentives for green energy. This despite the president’s frequent talk about taking away “tax breaks” and policies favorable to natural gas and oil.
He cited investments in green energy as important, especially to “Indian reservations that don’t have gambling.” The audience snickered briefly as Clinton himself seemed to sense he didn’t want to go any further down that road.
The speech was mostly low-key and low on expectations. Clinton’s summation of Obama’s plan for green energy investment could stand in as his pitch for the entire second term— “Let’s keep doing this.”
His closing attempted to tie up all of the campaign’s objections to the Romney/Ryan ticket in a racial bow, implying Republican xenophobia and racism toward everyone from African-Americans to Italians. The New York Times recounts:
“Oh, he endorsed him because they are both black,” Mr. Clinton said, using his own paraphrase of Mr. Sununu’s comments. (Mr. Sununu had quickly backtracked last week, saying he did not doubt Mr. Powell’s endorsement was based on anything other than support for Mr. Obama’s policies.)…
And Mr. Clinton wasn’t finished. He mentioned how the Romney campaign had, in Mr. Clinton’s words, stated that “now the Italians are taking your jobs away.”
And the big finish: “Mr. Clinton, who says he has Irish ancestry, closed his remarks here by joking, ‘Pretty soon, they’ll come after the Irish – and I’m toast.'”
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I expected far more people and more excitement for Bill Clinton. This is the rock star, in northern Ohio, 10 minutes from an auto plant, where Obama’s support for the auto industry bailout is supposed to carry the state into the blue column. I’m not regularly on the trail, but I did attend a Paul Ryan rally in Colorado swing district. Like Clinton, Ryan’s a rock star with appeal on par with the candidate himself, and the event was held in a nearly identical gym. Ryan’s rally outdid this effort by a factor of four. That rally happened right after Ryan was named to the ticket, so enthusiasm was admittedly high, but shouldn’t enthusiasm be high in northern Ohio four days before the election? If not, to borrow a phrase, maybe you’re toast.