A star among Democrats

The Baltimore Sun

The e-mail went out Wednesday to supporters of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley: Show up in Fells Point to rally with former President Bill Clinton, and make sure to wear your green O'Malley T-shirts.

Dozens of them did, but when they arrived at yesterday's rally they heard a different message. "They said this is a Ben Cardin event," said Oronde Short, 33, who along with other O'Malley-clad enthusiasts was given a white Cardin T-shirt and told to cover up his O'Malley green.

He obliged, but perhaps the hottest T-shirt of all was one with another message: "Bill Still Rocks." The president who played saxophone on Arsenio Hall, who discussed his underwear preferences on MTV, who was nearly undone by a sex scandal and who has made it his mission to eradicate HIV from Africa, basked in the adoration of hundreds of admirers yesterday as Maryland's Democratic leaders scrambled to share in the love.

The stage at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park was loaded with two U.S. senators, two congressmen, two state delegates, one mayor, one state's attorney and one county executive - all Democrats, all angling for the spotlight. They all got their turn at the podium in nearly an hour of warm-up speeches before the main event.

When Clinton's six-vehicle motorcade zoomed in at 4:20 p.m., his instantly recognizable silver hair and pink face prompted a cheer loud enough to drown out Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who was in the middle of her remarks. The former president quickly waved to the crowd and ducked into a nearby building, only to emerge 15 minutes later, on stage, wearing a Cardin lapel pin and a grin so big it seemed there was no other place he'd rather be in the world than Fells Point on a gray and sticky Thursday afternoon.

When it was at last his turn to talk, Clinton was careful to mention and thank every politician sharing the stage with him, but it was clear who had drawn the crowd of about 1,000. When Clinton described himself as "somebody who can't run for anything anymore," he was cut off by shouts of "No! No!"

And when he said the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that the Democrats represent both the liberal and conservative strains of American politics, even some Republicans in the crowd found themselves nodding in agreement.

"The Bush administration has pandered to the far-right sect of the party," said Justin Johnson, 22, a registered Republican and first-year medical student at Johns Hopkins. He appreciated that Clinton spoke to the crowd plainly.

"He can say things that make you laugh and then things that give you insight," Johnson said. "When Bill Clinton talks, he sounds like a regular guy."

For the Democrats, there is no bigger star than Clinton. By Election Day next month, he will have appeared at more than 75 rallies and fundraisers - a nearly nonstop campaign schedule that outpaces his appearances in 2002 and 2004. This year, Clinton is back, and the Democrats couldn't be happier.

"For people like the folks in Baltimore, as far as they're concerned, Clinton is still their president," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said before yesterday's rally. "They feel as if President Bush has left them out, and what President Clinton brings is a message of hope - and people need to hear that."

Ruth Cox, 53, who arrived at the rally nearly two hours early, said she read Clinton's autobiography in 2004 when she came down with a case of the West Nile virus. His book inspired her to quit her job as a marketing executive and go into public service full time. She's now a field director for Democrat James C. Rosapepe's campaign for state Senate.

"Clinton's a magnet," she said. "We missed him in 2004."

In August a Time magazine poll found that two-thirds of Americans said they have a favorable view of Clinton's presidency, and his job approval rating had soared to 70 percent - nearly double that of his successor. Speakers at the rally were quick to recall what they described as the peaceful, prosperous days of the Clinton administration.

"Oh my word, I miss President Clinton in the White House," Mikulski said as the crowd cheered. "Don't you just miss him?"

The rally was held outdoors, next to the maritime museum that celebrates the lives of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and author, and Isaac Myers, a black activist in Civil War-era Baltimore. Inside the museum is a book of rhetoric that Douglass studied when he lived in Baltimore. It seemed fitting, some said, that the Democratic politician best known for his empathetic and fiery rhetoric would stop at this site.

"Maybe it's coincidence," said Marc Pettingill, the museum's maritime activities coordinator. "Maybe it's divine fate."

After speaking for 20 minutes, Clinton left the stage and dived into the crowd, posing for photos and reaching his large hands out to his fans. Some grabbed hold of his jacket and pressed their faces against his chest. He never stopped smiling or saying, "Thank you, thank you."

"I'm ecstatic," said Phyllis Hall, 47, of Lanham, who held Clinton's hand. "I have never felt this way about anybody."


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