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Audience supplies all the applause, laughter needed

By Steve Huffman and Susan Shinn
Salisbury Post
The former leader of the free world stopped in Salisbury Friday afternoon.
Sandra Dezern drove from Winston-Salem to hear Bill Clinton, and she was impressed. “He spoke for a solid hour without a note. He’s everything I’d heard he was. He’s great.”
Clinton ó slimmer and more white-headed than he was during his days as president ó stepped to the lectern outside Historic Salisbury Foundation’s depot about 12:05 p.m., slightly more than 30 minutes past his scheduled arrival time.
Genoal Russell, the recently elected chairman of the Rowan County Democratic Party, introduced him.
“Wow, hello, Salisbury,” Clinton said as he was welcomed by an enthusiastic round of applause.
He then turned to thank Russell.
“That was such a good introduction,” Clinton said, “if I had any sense, I wouldn’t say anything.”
But then, he spoke a little bit about everything, including the economy, the war in Iraq and education.
But the thing he most stressed was his wife’s bid for the presidency. “America should say yes to Hillary,” Clinton told the crowd of about 500 who stood or sat in folding chairs on a beautiful spring afternoon.
His audience interrupted frequently with applause and generous laughter.
Salisbury’s Rhonda Jones came to the gathering with her daughters, Tracey and Kim, carrying signs that read: “HillBillary ’08.”
Jones is a registered independent but plans to vote for Hillary in the May 6 N.C. primary.
Beth Meadows heard Bill Clinton speak in Las Vegas a couple of years ago and described him like this: “He’s charismatic.”
Tamara Sheffield, another Salisbury resident, said she made up her mind to vote for Hillary just a couple of weeks ago. She’d ordered an “I love Hillary” T-shirt from the campaign, and it arrived just in time for Friday’s event.
Elizabeth Navarro, 23, of Rockwell, is a private in the Army Reserve and said she was thrilled to hear Clinton say his wife wanted to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.
Navarro said she’s scheduled to be in the Army Reserve until 2013, meaning she’s likely to go to Iraq if the situation doesn’t change.
“I think it’ll be a good thing if Hillary goes in,” Navarro said.
Her sister, Jaclyn Bailey, 21, is about to enter the regular Army and said, “I definitely feel more comfortable about going in now” after hearing Clinton’s speech.
Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm had about 15 officers working the event ó the same number as at the “Leatherheads” press conference at the depot Wednesday. The Rowan County Sheriff’s Office provided personnel as well.
Members of the audience were polite and orderly both days, which pleased Wilhelm.
“I need some rest!” he said, smiling. “It’s been very hectic this past month.”
It’s been a very hectic week for Jack Thomson, director of Historic Salisbury Foundation.
Thomson hosted George Clooney and company Wednesday.
Thomson slept in Thursday morning and arrived at his office at 9:15 a.m.
“The advance man for the campaign was waiting on me,” he said.
He was happy to oblige.
It’s not just the size of the venue, Thomson said of Salisbury Station. “They are making a statement by picking this landmark.
“We’re excited to have any campaign here.”
No doubt there will be other stops here with North Carolina now a battleground state for the Democratic presidential contenders.
Michael and Connie Baker strolled over to the station’s south garden from their home and studio at the former Flower’s Bakery.
“When you live downtown, you come to downtown events,” Connie Baker said, sporting a Hillary campaign sticker.
Her husband is supporting Obama, but he said he’d vote for whichever candidate wins the nomination.
Connie Baker also came to see Clooney Wednesday. “I had a ball,” she said. “I thought it was so much fun.”
Friday’s event was equally upbeat, with warm, sunny skies and piped-in music playing before Clinton arrived.
This crowd featured mainly older voters but more children than Wednesday. Friday’s gathering was also more diverse.
Spring break continued this week, so schoolchildren and their parents took the opportunity to see a former president.
“It’s a historic event to see a president,” said Tim Norris, who brought daughter Mary Scott and son Christopher, along with their cousin Will Casmus.
Charles Brown of Salisbury and his son, Erick, a junior at Elon University, also attended.
Erick Brown is majoring in political science and economics and likes both Democratic candidates, although he’s leaning toward Obama.
“I want to hear what Bill has to say,” he said.
Erick Brown sheepishly admitted that he’d told his father North Carolina wouldn’t matter in the primaries.
“My foot’s completely in my mouth,” he said.
Friday’s event drew no protesters ó well, maybe just one.
Melanie Earle stood across Depot Street, wearing a Ron Paul T-shirt with her khaki shorts.
“This is my protest!” she said, laughing.
She works on Depot Street, so she came out to watch the crowd for a bit, she said.
Dr. Melanie Marshall, an oral surgeon, came with her office staff, Jamie Beaver, Dee Black and Lisa Plummer.
“I just love Bill,” she said, “even though he’s a philanderer.”
“It doesn’t mean we’re voting Democrat,” Beaver added.
“But how often does a president come to this little town?” Black asked.
A train whistle interrupted Clooney at 12:15 Wednesday and trumped Clinton at 12:52 p.m.
He paused only briefly ó “Republican train there,” he said ó before continuing over the rumble on the tracks.
A phalanx of six Secret Service agents surrounded Clinton as he briefly worked the crowd.
Andrew Harris of Salisbury reached through tree branches to shake the former president’s hand.
“My mind’s been made up,” he said. “I’m going for experience. I’ve been with them the whole time. Experience means a lot in this day and time. Once everybody’s doing good, that’s change.”
Nearby, Rashad Smith hoisted his 5-year-old daughter, Tamia, up so she could also shake Clinton’s hand.
Afterward, Tamia’s mom, Tiffany, let her call grandmother on the cell phone to say she shook Bill’s hand.
Tamia talked for a bit, then looked up.
“Mama, Bill who?” she asked.
“She’ll appreciate it one day,” her dad said.
Meanwhile, the Clinton entourage prepared to depart at the back of the depot.
A spiffy red Dodge Charger (“That thing got a Hemi?!”) driven by an N.C. Highway Patrol trooper led the motorcade of two taupe Suburbans, a black Buick, a white Dodge minivan, a white Toyota SUV and a silver unmarked patrol car.
Police blocked traffic in all three directions at Depot and Liberty streets.
About two dozen people stood on the block up Liberty Street, after being moved along the sidewalk on Depot Street by law enforcement.
Clinton emerged shortly before 1:30 p.m., waving to the remaining spectators as he got into one of the Suburbans.
He took time to shake the hands of several police officers lined against the wall.
As his vehicle pulled away, he rolled down the window in the back seat and kept waving as the motorcade pulled onto Innes Street toward the interstate.
As he left, Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” played from loudspeakers outside the depot.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or shuffman@ salisburypost.com. Contact Susan Shinn at 704-797-4289 or sshinn@salisburypost.com.

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