Hillary Clinton took the stage to pop anthem “This is my Fight Song” at the Charlotte Convention Center and criticized Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s record Tuesday, as the spotlight of the 2016 presidential race fell squarely on North Carolina.
Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and President Barack Obama arrived by motorcade uptown at about 3 p.m. Their joint appearance was also meant to emphasize Obama’s support of Clinton, with both the president and his former Secretary of State showering each other with effusive praise.
Tuesday was a major day for Clinton’s campaign: In addition to her first joint appearance on the campaign trail with Obama, FBI Director James Comey announced Tuesday morning that his agency won’t recommend Clinton face charges in the long-running probe into her use of a private email server.
Clinton praised Obama as someone who hasn’t forgotten his roots and referenced Trump’s history as a “birther” who questioned the president’s birthplace.
“Donald, if you’re out there tweeting, it’s Hawaii,” said Clinton, drawing laughs from the crowd. She also called him “temperamentally unfit” to hold the office: “Can you imagine him sitting in the Oval Office the next time our country faces a crisis?”
Clinton also didn’t waste any time emphasizing her political ties to Obama, following their “hard-fought primary” battle in 2008. The president, sitting to her right on stage, wiped his brow in mock stress at the mention.
“We’ve been through it all as we went from political rivals to partners to friends,” said Clinton. “He knows a thing or two about winning elections, take it from me.”
Obama led the crowd in a chant of “Hillary, Hillary,” when he took the stage.
“I believe in Hillary Clinton,” said Obama. He also referenced their primary fight. “We had gone through what was one of the longest, toughest primaries ever...I had a chance to see just how smart she was, and just how prepared she was.”
The rally drew thousands to a venue the Charlotte Regional Visitor Authority said holds a maximum of 7,000. By early afternoon, long lines of people hoping to get in snaked around the convention center and down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, as hundreds of people waited to enter the rally.
Clinton called for many policies popular among the Democrats’ liberal base: Paid family leave, a higher minimum wage and a continuation of Obama’s universal health care. She also hearkened back to one of his most famous lines from 2004, calling for the nation to act “not as red states and blue states, but as the United States.”
With North Carolina potentially a crucial swing state this year – Obama won its 15 electoral votes in 2008 and Republican Mitt Romney clinched the state in 2012 – it’s not just Democrats visiting. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is also planning to hold a 7 p.m. rally in Raleigh on Tuesday.
And state politics are wrapped up in the campaign stops as well. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper, the state attorney general vying to unseat Gov. Pat McCrory, is appearing with Clinton and Obama, as is Democratic Senate candidate Deborah Ross, locked in a fight with Sen. Richard Burr for his seat this fall. On the Republican side, Burr and McCrory have both said they won’t be able to appear with Trump, citing prior commitments.
But both are still using the visits to boost their own campaigns. The Burr campaign released a statement accusing Ross of having a “radical record” and being more liberal than Clinton and Obama, while McCrory’s campaign sent out a fundraising appeal asking for donations to “keep the Obama machine out of our state!”
Tuesday’s campaign rally is Clinton’s first visit to Charlotte since a March 14 rally at Grady Cole Center. She went on to win the state’s primary the next day. Last month, she visited Raleigh and delivered a speech outlining her plans for the U.S. economy.
Her Charlotte rally offers Clinton the chance to start showing that she has the full support of Obama, a bitter foe in the 2008 Democratic primaries who has morphed into her ally, following Clinton’s stint as secretary of state.
After her visit to Charlotte, Clinton plans to travel Wednesday to Atlantic City, N.J. There, her campaign has said she will “make the case that Donald Trump is unfit to serve as president based on the wake of destruction his business dealings have left in the seaside town and for businesses and families across the country.”
North Carolinians voted reliably Republican in presidential elections for decades, but in 2008 Obama carried the state, the first time in 32 years a Democrat had done so. His margin of victory was a razor-thin 14,000 votes. In 2012, Romney won by 2 percentage points.
So far, the average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics show North Carolina in a statistical dead heat, with Clinton winning 44 percent of votes and Trump getting 43.3 percent. That’s well within the margin of error – indicating the state could well be a toss-up in November.
No Republican has won the White House without carrying North Carolina since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Democrats are clearly planning to campaign hard in the state this year.
“We’re going to turn North Carolina blue in November,” Ross told the uptown crowd waiting to see Clinton and Obama.
Cooper echoed the sentiment.
“North Carolina is ground zero. Why else would our president and our next president choose North Carolina to campaign together for the first time?” said Cooper. “They know we can win this state.”
Cooper also linked McCrory to Trump in his brief speech.
“You want leaders who will lead us forward – not like Donald Trump and Pat McCrory,” said Cooper.
No charges recommended in email probe
Clinton’s campaign appearance in Charlotte comes just hours after the FBI director said the agency wouldn’t recommend charges against her for using a private email server to handle communications that included classified information. But Comey did call Clinton’s actions “extremely careless” and said it was possible hostile powers gained access to her communications while she was Secretary of State.
Republicans immediately criticized the decision. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement that declining to prosecute Clinton “defies explanation.”
The president and Hillary Clinton spent time together in flight, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said. He said he was sure they didn’t discuss the investigation or the FBI’s announcement, and said the president won’t discuss it directly in his public remarks.
He sidestepped questions about whether the president agrees with the FBI’s conclusion that Clinton was “extremely careless” with classified material. No one at the White House received a heads up about the FBI recommendation or even that director Comey would make his announcement today, he said. Because the Justice Department hasn’t yet decided how to proceed on the FBI’s recommendation, he said, the White House remains cautious about weighing in.
“The president is aware of the news,” Earnest said.
Obama remains “enthusiastic about her candidacy.... The president will deliver a forceful case about Secretary Clinton’s qualifications and values that she would bring to the job of president of the United States,” he said.
“Based on what we know from Director Comey’s comments, they’ve looked at this in excruciating detail,” he said. He lauded Comey’s integrity and noted that many Republicans had expressed confidence in the FBI’s investigation ahead of Tuesday’s announcement.
On cost of this trip to taxpayers, Earnest said the Clinton campaign will pay an ordinary share, through the Democratic National Committee. “The White House of course follows all of the rules and regulations that apply to presidential travel.”
At Tuesday’s rally, attendees didn’t say the FBI email issue concerns them. Megan Brogan of Fort Mill trusts Hillary Clinton more than any candidate – even more than she trusted Barack Obama when he ran in 2008.
“I trust her. She’s got a track record. He was relatively inexperienced.”
Staff writers Elizabeth Leland, Tim Funk and Jim Morrill contributed