APEX, N.C. (AP) -- People who suggest Bill Clinton might be hurting his wife's presidential bid more than helping it haven't spent much time in the small towns where he draws adoring crowds of Democrats who wish he could serve a third term.
While the former president has angered some blacks with his comments about race, many voters in North Carolina, Indiana and elsewhere express deep affection for him, the last Democrat to occupy the White House in nearly three decades. They often cite him as the main reason for supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama.
Surely in the history of U.S. campaigns no former president has come close to the level of energy and visibility that Clinton is pouring into his efforts to help his wife overtake Obama.
The seven campaign stops that Bill Clinton has scheduled Saturday in Indiana would exhaust many politicians half his age. Sunday will be his relative day of rest, with a mere five stops in North Carolina before making a jaw-dropping nine on Monday.
In a week, he will have made 42 speeches in three states. Nearly all take place in towns too small to justify visits by Obama or Hillary Clinton, but which nonetheless are home to thousands of potential voters thrilled to see one of the world's most famous people.
The former president insisted on the frantic pace, recently admonishing aides to schedule more events for him as the primary season winds down with Indiana and North Carolina voting Tuesday. His efforts have drawn mixed reviews, especially after outbursts that angered many blacks.
But those who suggest Clinton might damage his wife's campaign have probably spent little time in Clarksburg, W.Va., Whiting, Ind., Elkin, N.C., or the other towns he is hitting. He routinely draws adoring crowds of Democrats who stand attentively to hear his detailed, rapid-fire case for his wife's election - often after waiting hours for him to arrive.
The turnouts might surprise urban Americans, especially those not enamored of the Clintons. Thousands of small-town and rural Democrats are flattered by the celebrity's visit, and eager to show gratitude for a presidency they consider the best they have known.
The headline in Wednesday's News Herald of Morganton, N.C., read: "Bill Clinton's brief touchdown in Burke elicits hysteria."
The account of "high-pitched shrieks and whoops" from fans who "jumped up and down in excitement" as his plane taxied was all the more remarkable because Clinton didn't even speak in Morganton or Burke County. He simply used the airport to reach four other western North Carolina towns, including Boone, where 2,000 people filled a gym at Appalachian State University.
He compared his wife's come-from-behind effort to the school's stunning football victory over Michigan last year, and told the crowd that Democrats have held far more divisive primaries in the past.
The next day, waiting for the former president in Apex, south of Raleigh, Colleen Blondell was asked why she supports Hillary Clinton.
"I was a Bill Clinton fan," the pharmaceutical sales trainer said. Hillary Clinton seems likely to model her presidency on his, she added. Many voters gave virtually identical answers during three days of interviews ahead of Tuesday's primaries in North Carolina and Indiana.
Still, some party activists see Clinton's small-town tour as an implicit banishment by campaign chiefs weary of his penchant for antagonizing key constituents, especially blacks. The ex-president infuriated many when he seemed to diminish Obama's South Carolina victory by likening it to earlier victories by Jesse Jackson, whose appeal to non-black voters was limited.
More recently, Clinton accused the Obama campaign of playing "the race card" against him. He later angrily denied saying it, as he lectured a reporter who caught it all on video.
The comments, and the Clintons' tenacious fight against Obama, drew a rebuke from Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., Congress's highest-ranking black leader. He suggested the couple might be inflicting irreparable harm on the party that Bill Clinton helped revive after 12 years of GOP control of the White House.
Nonetheless, campaign insiders say his efforts are clearly a net plus for his wife. Few would disagree in the small North Carolina towns of Apex, Sanford, Lillington, Dunn, Hope Mills, Lumberton and Whiteville, which Clinton visited Wednesday.
Tracy Monroe, who is black and owns a hair salon in Sanford, said she is torn between Obama and Clinton. Obama inspires her, she said, "but I personally like Hillary Clinton because I liked her husband as president."
Monroe, 38, said the New York senator cannot afford to suggest that her husband would run her administration, "but I know she'll say, 'OK, Bill, what do you think?'"
John T. Miller, a black retired maintenance worker from Raleigh, said he voted early for Hillary Clinton "because her husband was president, and he did pretty good while he was in. And she will follow in his footsteps."
Bill Clinton's morning speeches can last more than 50 minutes, or much less when he is running late, which is often. He sometimes ends by noting that his daughter, Chelsea, said she believes her mother would be a better president than her dad.
"I agree with my daughter," he told the Apex crowd, which applauded heartily and lunged forward for autographs and handshakes.
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