Delivering a speech in Cary last week, former President Bill Clinton cited an endorsement from North Carolina native Gen. Henry Hugh Shelton, whom Clinton appointed to the first of his two terms as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thirty-four retired generals and admirals have endorsed Hillary Clinton.
"Why did they endorse the girl for president, all these generals? First, they all agree that we need to bring our soldiers home from Iraq," he said to firm applause from the approximately 600 people gathered at the Cary Senior Center in Bond Park. "And they trust her to do it in the right way, to rebuild the military, to take care of the veterans, and to pursue the real adversary in the war on terror, al-Qaida."
Clinton's promotion of her national security credentials is a crucial part of her primary bid against Barack Obama. But at the Cary event, war talk mostly took a backseat to economic and health care issues that the event's location seemed to highlight.
The crowd—some of whom were senior citizens, most of whom were women—reflected an excitement about this year's election, both because of the Democrats' momentum and because of the historic chance North Carolina has to be influential in the presidential election. Bill Clinton promised his wife would visit the state at least once a week between now and the May 6 primary.
"This whole thing could come down to what you all decide in North Carolina," he said. "This is a state which is very much involved in all the promise and all the peril that's going on in the American economy. It is therefore appropriate that you have a big role in America's future."
Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit the state on March 27. She will deliver an economic policy address at Wake Tech in Raleigh, and attend events in Fayetteville and Winston-Salem. Obama, meanwhile, is scheduled to visit Greensboro March 26.
In the folksy, friendly manner the former president is famous for, with his effortless command of facts and figures, Clinton delivered a 40-minute speech without notes. He enumerated a wide spectrum of financial issues—the foreclosure crisis, aging baby boomers, rising health care costs—and explained Hillary Clinton's policy proposals in detail. She plans to increase energy efficiency in a way that will create "green-collar" jobs, he said, and supports ways to provide financial relief to the 1.5 million unpaid caregivers of sick and elderly family members.
He also described his support for candidate Clinton in personal terms, which played well.
"I'd be here for her this afternoon if we had never been married," he said, "because I consider her to be the ablest, best prepared person I've ever had the chance to support in a presidential primary."
Describing her plan to pay down the national debt and fund Social Security, Clinton remarked, "This is not about my record. This is about her conviction. I'd give anything if my late father-in-law had lived to see his little girl run for president. He'd be so proud."
While Clinton's comments in Cary were uncontroversial, a comment the former president had made earlier in the day at a VFW hall in Charlotte emerged in the media cycle as the controversial Clinton-camp comment of the week.
"I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country," he said in Charlotte, "and people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics."
Political pundits and Obama supporters interpreted this as a swipe against the Illinois senator for not adequately distancing himself from his former pastor's criticisms of the United States. Clinton's spokesperson insisted his intention was to underscore the need to talk about issues, not to challenge anyone's patriotism.
In the back row at the 350-seat Cary Senior Center auditorium sat Catherine Evangelista, who brought her three sons to hear the former president. Evangelista, the Cary vice chair of the Wake County Democrats, has been a Hillary supporter since 1992, "back when she wore headbands."
"It's mainly her resolve and the fact that she's the best candidate." Asked why the Clinton campaign might have chosen this small venue in Cary for its event, she replied, "I have no idea. We're just glad he's here."
"I want Hillary's success," said Vithal Shah of Cary, whose faced beamed after he managed to shake Clinton's hand just before Secret Service and senior center staff ushered the former president out. Shah says he doesn't know which candidate will win the Democratic nomination, but he's confident that person will ultimately be elected, and that's what matters most to him.
Outside, Clinton emerged to greet the 200 or so people who had been waiting in the warm sunlight near a white gazebo, listening to his speech over a public address system. Parents put children on their shoulders and moved toward the metal barricades for a chance to make contact with a former president.
"You don't forget that handshake," said Tracy Hollister of Raleigh, who first shook his hand in 1994. She's one of many at the Cary event who are campaigning for Sen. Clinton in North Carolina in advance of the primary.
It's unclear how many Triangle stops Clinton will make between now and then.
But there's no question that North Carolina is in play. On Monday, the campaign's Web site, www.hillaryclinton.com, headlined its pitch for online contributions with the call: "Help Hillary Win North Carolina."
Former President Bill Clinton returns to North Carolina Friday, March 28, attending campaign events in Greensboro, High Point, Kannapolis, Salisbury and Hickory.