Bill Clinton in Charlotte: ‘I was naive. I thought we’d have a fact-based election’

Bill Clinton in Charlotte

Former President Bill Clinton spoke Sunday at an Early Vote Event at the Hickory Grove Recreation Center in Charlotte
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Former President Bill Clinton spoke Sunday at an Early Vote Event at the Hickory Grove Recreation Center in Charlotte

Former President Bill Clinton rallied a crowd of about 400 in Charlotte on Sunday with a simple message: Get out and vote, the earlier the better.

Speaking at the Hickory Grove Recreation Center on Pence Road, he expressed disappointment at the way the 2016 presidential race has turned into an ugly contest with a nearly unprecedented level of bile between his wife, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and Republican candidate Donald Trump.

“The other side wants a fact-free, name-calling election,” Bill Clinton said. “I was naive. I thought we’d have a fact-based election.”

He also accused Trump of whipping up his supporters until they were “foaming at the mouth,” and said Trump’s thought process is “I’ve got to keep ’em as mad as they can be, otherwise they might start thinking.”

The former president’s visit is the latest in an all-out blitz by high-profile Republicans and Democrats trying to win closely contested North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes. The polls remain tight, with Hillary Clinton holding a slight edge over Trump, with eight days left before the election.

The close race is one reason Bill Clinton and other campaigners are pushing people to get out and vote early. After the first 10 days of early voting, 137,784 ballots had already been cast in Mecklenburg County, according to data from the Board of Elections. That’s ahead of the 134,865 cast as of the same day in 2012, and well ahead of the 101,634 cast by that day in 2008. N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, a Democrat, praised Mecklenburg for its “kick-butt early voting” numbers.

“The most important thing you can do is vote early,” Bill Clinton told the crowd. The Clinton campaign also supported 47 “souls to the polls” early voting events across North Carolina on Sunday. Such events are meant to boost turnout in early voting among churchgoers, and they have often been important in getting out the African-American vote.

47.9 percentClinton support among likely voters in North Carolina

44.7 percentTrump support among likely voters in North Carolina

The Charlotte rally, following an early afternoon stop in Greensboro, was Bill Clinton’s second swing through North Carolina in a week: The former president visited Rocky Mount, Goldsboro and Greenville on Tuesday and campaigned in Pembroke, Wilmington and Fayetteville on Wednesday.

Polling averages have shown Clinton with a lead over Trump, though the latest polling data doesn’t reflect the aftermath of news Friday that the FBI is investigating more emails related to Clinton’s private email server. The Real Clear Politics average of statewide polling through Friday shows Clinton with a 3.2 percentage point edge over Trump among likely voters: 47.9 percent of voters in the state said they support Clinton, vs. 44.7 percent for Trump.

The Republican National Committee criticized Bill Clinton’s visit ahead of his Charlotte speech and highlighted the email probe.

“As Hillary Clinton’s campaign continues to be dogged by developments into the FBI’s investigation of her emails, Bill Clinton is back in North Carolina trying to convince voters that she can be trusted,” said Kara Carter, an RNC spokeswoman, in a statement. “Unfortunately for her campaign, North Carolina voters don’t trust Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton’s last-ditch appeal won’t erase the decades of scandal that have plagued her candidacy.”

At the rally, several voters said they weren’t bothered by the latest twist in the Clinton email story. Nearly everyone in the gymnasium raised their hands when asked if they had already voted. Bill Clinton didn’t raise the email issue, and Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller appeared to be the only official who made a reference to the story when he addressed the crowd.

“Some recent news presented greater challenges for us,” said Fuller. “We’ve got work to do.”

The presidential race could have big implications for other crucial statewide contests in North Carolina: Republican incumbents Gov. Pat McCrory and Sen. Richard Burr are both trying to fend off strong challenges from Democrats Roy Cooper and Deborah Ross.

Hillary Clinton held a campaign rally last Sunday at UNC Charlotte and campaigned Thursday with first lady Michelle Obama at Wake Forest University. This week, Vice President Joe Biden will be in Charlotte on Tuesday, President Barack Obama is at UNC-Chapel Hill on Wednesday and Hillary Clinton will be back in North Carolina on Thursday.

Republicans have also been frequenting North Carolina. Trump gave a speech targeting black voters in Charlotte on Wednesday and held a rally in Kinston. His running mate, Gov. Mike Pence, held rallies in Salisbury and Greensboro last Monday.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo