Bill Clinton: ‘I’m a white southerner – I know what Make America Great Again means’

Former President Bill Clinton stumps for wife Hillary in Rocky Mount

Bill Clinton speaks during a rally on N. Church Street in Rocky Mount, N.C. on Tuesday, October 25, 2015 in Rocky Mount, N.C. Clinton outlines the differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
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Bill Clinton speaks during a rally on N. Church Street in Rocky Mount, N.C. on Tuesday, October 25, 2015 in Rocky Mount, N.C. Clinton outlines the differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Former President Bill Clinton kicked off a two-day campaign bus tour of Eastern North Carolina Tuesday, denouncing Republican Donald Trump and his slogan without once mentioning the billionaire by name.

“I’m a white southerner – I know what ‘Make America Great Again’ means, and all of you of a certain age know exactly what it means,” Clinton told a mostly African-American crowd gathered in a Rocky Mount parking lot. “I didn’t fall off this truck yesterday, I’ve heard this song a long time. It means first, I’ll give you the economy you had 50 years ago, and second, I’ll give you the society you had 50 years ago: I’ll move you up and move somebody else down.”

Clinton – introduced as “America’s next first gentleman” by attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper – promoted Hillary Clinton’s economic and education proposals during the stop, which was followed by rallies in Goldsboro and Greenville.

North Carolina democratic gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Roy Cooper outlines his positions on education, and economic growth for eastern North Carolina during a rally on N. Church Street in Rocky Mount, N.C. on Tuesday, October 25, 2015

He’ll continue the visit Wednesday with stops in Pembroke, Wilmington and Fayetteville as Hillary Clinton’s campaign ramps up its schedule of high-profile Democrats coming to North Carolina. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was scheduled to speak Tuesday evening at Meredith College in Raleigh, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean will be at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State on Wednesday. Hillary Clinton will be joined by first lady Michelle Obama Thursday for a rally at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

With presidential polls tight in North Carolina, Trump’s campaign is busy here too this week. Vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence was in Salisbury and Greensboro Monday, and Trump will hold a rally Wednesday in Kinston.

While campaign rhetoric is heated, Bill Clinton called on the Rocky Mount crowd to treat Trump supporters with understanding. “Do not treat them with the anger they often display toward us – love them to death,” he said. “Look at them and say, ‘we need you.’ ... You don’t want to choose somebody who’s the living embodiment of what’s wrong when you’ve got another person who’s the living embodiment of what we can make right.”

Bill Clinton’s visit drew criticism from Republicans. They pointed to his recent comment that health-care cost increases under the Affordable Care Act are “the craziest thing in the world.”

“Bill Clinton’s two-day bus tour is simply another reminder to North Carolinians that even he admits Obamacare is a flawed system that has burdened their families,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kara Carter said in a news release.

Clinton offered a toned-down critique of the health-care system, arguing that Trump’s proposal to repeal the law is the wrong approach to fixing its problems. But he said leaders must address co-pays, premium and prescription drug costs that are “too high.”

“You keep what’s good about the law and attack the problems,” he said, pointing to Hillary Clinton’s plan to allow adults age 55 and older to join Medicare. “The worst problems are for people who are just above the subsidy line (paying full price), and we can fix that.”

Bill Clinton tailored his message to the rural communities he’s visiting in North Carolina. The Rocky Mount speech took place a block from the city’s historic downtown Main Street, which has a high percentage of vacant storefronts.

The Clinton campaign’s “stronger together” slogan, he said, “means connecting small-town and rural America to the successes of the American economy and giving everyone a chance to learn and earn.”

Bill Clinton called for improved roads and infrastructure and affordable broadband internet service for all school children. “You need more connection to the rest of North Carolina’s economy,” he said.

He also praised Hillary Clinton’s plan for free community college tuition and free public university tuition for families making less than $125,000. And he said college graduates must be given a chance to refinance student loan debts.

“Raise your hand if you know somebody with college debt,” Bill Clinton said as the majority of the people listening raised their hands. “I rest my case – it’s over $2 trillion.”

Bill Clinton talks about education, his working relationship with former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, college tuition and student loan interest rates on Tuesday, October 25, 2015 in Rocky Mount, N.C.

Iris Thompson of Rocky Mount said she liked his message on debt. “I have a daughter with college debt,” she said. “Helping the kids out will really help America.”

But Thompson, along with many at the rally, had already voted early – for Hillary Clinton – so they didn’t need the former president’s persuasion.

After the Rocky Mount rally, Clinton made an impromptu stop in downtown Wilson, where he took an eight-block stroll down Nash Street with two Wilson natives, former Gov. Jim Hunt and Congressman G.K. Butterfield.

Clinton greeted both supporters and people who just happened to be on the street. “Oh my God, it’s Bill Clinton,” one woman shouted as she ran toward the former president. Clinton dropped in to a Jamaican restaurant and several barber shops before getting back on the bus.

“Most popular man in America,” Hunt joked to his longtime friend.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter