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Bill Clinton draws raves in small town Pennsylvania

CLEARFIELD, Pa. — Bill Clinton's in town, and it's the biggest thing to hit this little outpost since singer Meat Loaf came through about a year ago.

"Who would have thought we could see a president of the United States?" said Paula Read, 72, who's lived here almost all her life. "I know he's a scoundrel, but I still like him."

That's the reaction Bill's looking for as he barnstorms through the pinpricks on Pennsylvania's map. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton needs a big turnout in these predominantly white coal-and-steel country cities if she's going to win Tuesday's primary, and a visit from Bill may help excite voters to go to the polls.

But with the Bill Show comes a problem: People pack the house to see him, not to hear a speech. And one never knows if he'll incite a political firestorm.

He comes to places like Clearfield, a city of 6,600 in the state's north country, and finds an eager crowd at the local middle school.

Doreen Hoover, a Curwensville accountant, almost cooed when she spoke about Bill Clinton. "He could talk to people. If something was wrong, he could turn it around and make you feel good," she said.

But don't get her started on Hillary.

"I'm married to a plumber," Hoover said. "That doesn't mean I can put a bathroom in a house."

Clinton's been doing six or seven stops a day in places like this. Local folks in Brookville tell stories of how they saw him eating a hamburger from a local fast food stand, or hear him joke how "I've been behind every logging truck on the highway."

They stand in line for an hour or more at East High School in Erie or Lock Haven University, then they wait another hour or two in sweaty gyms because Clinton is habitually late. Unlike Meat Loaf, who charged $30 last summer when he played the county fair, Bill's free.

"This will be the biggest thing to hit this city ever-if we ever get to see him," said Margaret Ogden, 86, as she entered her third hour waiting for Clinton to arrive in Clearfield.

Once he did, though, he got nothing but standing ovations and warm applause. His pitch was part stump speech, part good ol' boy talk.

He told the thousand-strong throng in Clearfield how beautiful the area is, and how it's people like them "who sent Hillary $10 or $20 over the Internet" that keep her campaign going.

He has an instinctive feel for what's troubling these people, concentrating on high gasoline and medical care costs. The northwest and central parts of this state have been in an economic quagmire for decades, and most people here seem to like him and his views.

"Bill Clinton balanced the budget, and that helped the entire economy," noted Laurie Irwin, a student aide from Curwensville. Nancy Rosman, a Sykesville nurse, sees first-hand the problems with the health care system, and found Bill Clinton's explanation of his wife's ideas practical.

Bill Clinton takes no questions in Clearfield — he almost never does — and says nothing to the media. There's only a small press contingent at most stops, and most reporters are from local newspapers or TV stations.

Clinton has proven to be too much of a liability to risk letting him talk off the cuff to the media. And he's sticking to smaller towns because in bigger cities, his presence lacks the wow factor and at times even hurts his wife.

In nearby Lewisburg, for instance, Tom Peper, an antiques dealer, has disliked Clinton for about 10 years. "I liked him a lot till he lied baldfaced to the American people" about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, Peper said.

"Now," said the Obama backer, "I see Clinton as no more than a self-serving egomaniac."

In Philadelphia, Johnnie Chatman, a school psychologist, also has soured on Clinton. "Bill was good for his time, but times have changed," she said, "and you have to ask how much more he could have done if there hadn't been all that controversy at the end of his term."

Bill Clinton has displayed a penchant for trouble in recent months. His January comment that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's South Carolina's success was largely because of race was seen by critics as offensive.

And earlier this month, he told an audience in Boonville, Indiana, that Hillary had made her comment about escaping sniper fire in Bosnia 11 years ago "one time late at night when she was exhausted..." In fact Hillary Clinton made her March 17 remark at a mid-morning speech.

While there are plenty of fans like glass factory worker Jennifer Faulkner, who left the Clearfield rally saying, "I really like him," there were also those like Carol Groff, fast food worker.

"I've lived here all my life, and we've never had anything like this," she said. "I have a lot of respect for Bill Clinton. He did the country proud.

"But Hillary? I'm not so sure. I think Bill made his own decisions, without much of her help."