In the Crowd for Clinton Speech, A Smattering of Opinions

By Beacon Staff

The line to see Bill Clinton speak in Kalispell snaked across the campus of Flathead Valley Community College and Rebecca Kelly stood at the front, bundled up against the chilly, rainy weather. Kelly, 53, of Kalispell, asked to leave work early and arrived more than three hours before the former president eventually showed up last week to campaign for his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, as she seeks the Democratic nomination.

A lifelong Democrat, Kelly admires how hard Bill and Chelsea Clinton are campaigning for Hillary. “He supports her; you know he loves her,” Kelly said. “They did an outstanding job with their daughter.”

Locked in a prolonged primary battle, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama holds the advantage over Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. He had drawn within the roughly 150 delegates of the 2,025 necessary as of last week, before the May 20 primaries in Kentucky and Oregon. Three of Montana’s eight superdelegates have endorsed Obama, and a fourth has indicated she will support him. With only South Dakota, Montana and Puerto Rico left to vote, Clinton’s hopes for the nomination appear slimmer by the day – but Kelly thinks it’s premature to write Clinton off entirely.

“I’m a little frustrated with the media, trying to give her all the exit plans,” Kelly said. “She’s got a lot of supporters out there who believe in what she’s doing.”

But while Bill Clinton’s appearance drew roughly 2,800 people, according to FVCC organizers, it’s unclear how many in the crowd were Hillary Clinton supporters, and how many came out to see a former president and witness one of the biggest political spectacles in recent Flathead history. Even among Clinton supporters, some in the crowd acknowledged Obama is the likely nominee.

Elsewhere in line, Bradley Wirth, 53 of Bigfork, was preparing to see Pres. Clinton for the fifth time, calling him, “one of the most significant and brightest presidents in the 20th century, and indeed, in the 21st century so far.”

“I think that Obama is going to be the nominee,” said Wirth, who has had a “Hillary Clinton for President” bumper sticker on his car since November of 2004. “But I think that the message that the Clintons have still needs to be heard.”

A few places back in line, a group of college students stood, joking with each other. University of Montana student Matthew Thiebes had a sign stuck to his shirt reading “Hil-Dog ’08,” a reference to a characteristically vulgar episode of the cartoon “South Park.” Thiebes is an Obama supporter, but came out to see Bill Clinton, saying it was the biggest thing to hit Kalispell since NBA star Shaquille O’Neal visited a few years back.

Matthew’s brother, MSU student John Thiebes, 20, also planned to vote for Obama in the primary, but said his “mind isn’t made up” for the general election. While interested to hear what Bill Clinton had to say, John Thiebes did not think he could be swayed to vote for Hillary.

When the former president took the stage, he spoke for roughly 40 minutes, on topics ranging from wind power to improving hybrid cars, and from healthcare to the Iraq War.

“If someone tells you you can’t win, it’s because you can, and they are afraid you will,” said Pres. Clinton, who had been stumping hard in the run-up to Oregon’s May 20 primary. “This race is not over.” But Clinton refrained from criticizing Obama, saying the party would remain united regardless of who receives the nomination.

After the speech, Clinton shook hands and conversed with people until well after 10 p.m. Standing in the crowd, Cody Leatzow, 23, of Kalispell, said he liked Obama, but his perception of Hillary Clinton had improved. “I’ve got to admit, I like the concept more than before I came,” Leatzow said, adding that he wouldn’t mind seeing Clinton as Obama’s running mate.

Patricia Hulla, 57, of Kalispell, said she was still undecided between Clinton and Obama, and the former president’s speech gave her some policy areas where she wanted to do more research into the candidates’ positions.

Bill Dakin, 59, of Columbia Falls is leaning toward Obama, but still enjoyed the speech by Pres. Clinton.

“He’s a very powerful speaker and he makes a terrifically strong case for Hillary Clinton,” Dakin said.

“It’s so refreshing to hear a president speak in complete sentences,” Dakin added. “I’ve forgotten what it was like.”

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