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Bill Clinton offers Western New York campaignin’ and explainin’

Bill Clinton came to Depew on Tuesday to do, as he might say in his lilting but weary Arkansas twang, some campaignin’ and explainin’.

With his wife, former New York Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, locked in a heated battle for the Democratic presidential nomination against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former president delivered a characteristically long speech on her behalf that seemed aimed both at rallying her loyal supporters and wooing new ones.

Message one, for the many longtime Democratic campaign hands among 850 people who crowded into the Grapevine banquet hall to see Clinton, was: Don’t get complacent before the April 19 New York primary.

“We need you to tell everybody in Western New York that this is the election that could matter most in this whole long primary season,” Clinton said.

And message two, for those who came because they were curious or not quite committed to a candidate yet, was: Here are Hillary Clinton’s detailed plans on education and the economy and so on and so forth and why she, not Sanders, is a politician who can get things done. “It’s not about establishment versus reform,” Clinton said. “It’s about leadership.”

Clinton could not have found himself in friendlier surroundings than he did in Depew on Tuesday. The mostly older, mixed-race crowd included many veterans of past Clinton campaigns, from his 1992 election as president to his 1996 re-election to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns in 2000 and 2006 and to her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

And the people at the podium before him included one longtime Clinton supporter after another – Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.

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Characteristically late, but only by a few minutes, Clinton came to the podium after the crowd erupted in a chant of “We want Bill! We want Bill!”

Beaming, the white-haired, wizened Clinton – a vegan who now looks nothing like the McDonald’s-fed youthful candidate of 1992 – smiled and said: “I love this place.”

From there, Clinton’s speech meandered just like his State of the Union addresses always did, albeit with a political tone that was notably different from those more formal addresses.

He repeatedly referenced the importance of the New York primary, where Hillary Clinton hopes to rebound from a loss to Sanders in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary.

“If we get enough votes, we will send a message to Pennsylvania and California” and the other late-voting primary states that follow New York, he said.

Clinton also spoke as if he thought Western New Yorkers owed Hillary Clinton their votes, given all that she did for them as U.S. senator. “I believe the happiest she ever was is when she was senator from New York,” he said.

He credited his wife with saving the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station from a proposed base closing in 2005, not mentioning that the rest of the local congressional delegation played key roles, too.

He credited Hillary Clinton with steering millions of dollars of federal aid to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which she did, again with the aid of other local lawmakers.

“If she could work with a Republican Congress and president to get that done, just imagine what she could do as president,” Clinton added.

Through most of the 40-minute address, Clinton kept his attacks on Sanders to a minimum. But the former president did try to make political hay out of a Tuesday article in The Buffalo News story noting that Sanders – in his criticism of free trade and financial deregulation – seemed to be running in part against the policies of the Bill Clinton administration.

“You know, there was a funny article in the morning paper in Buffalo,” he said of the story, which said Sanders criticizes Bill Clinton’s embrace of free trade with China, which a Federal Reserve study found to have cost American 4 million manufacturing jobs.

Noting that “Hillary’s opponent” also sometimes appears to be running against President Obama – another Democrat – Clinton said Sanders’ criticism is based on “a highly selective and often distorted picking out of what happened when I was president.”

Saying that Hillary Clinton has been a leader ever since he met her 45 years ago, the former president repeatedly emphasized that she has the political skills to do the job he once did.

“You have to have a strategy for us all to work together,” he said, noting that for decades, his wife has been building coalitions and winning political victories that make a difference in people’s lives.

And now she has plans to do that on a larger scale than ever, and Bill Clinton, at length, detailed them.

Countering Sanders’ proposal for free tuition at public colleges and universities, Bill Clinton took several minutes to explain his wife’s college-affordability plan, which would allow students to refinance their loans and save several thousand dollars each.

But education is just one part of her economic plan, he said, noting her proposals for improved job training and an expanded infrastructure program and rural broadband and green energy.

Those long, detailed passages of Clinton’s speech contrast sharply with Sanders’ usual stump speech, an impassioned series of quick hits in which he decries economic inequity, proposes breaking up the big banks and implementing a series of ambitious policy goals such as single-payer health insurance while railing against Wall Street and the corporate interests that fund many modern campaigns.

Clinton’s specificity appeared to pay off in some additional support for Hillary Clinton.

Amanda Weber, 21, of Depew, said she had been leaning toward Sanders until hearing Bill Clinton. “I vote on the issues and I want a plan of action,” she said. She loves Sanders’ progressive ideas, she said, “but what it comes down to is: Can it be implemented?”

Buffalo resident Paul Tuzzo, a senior citizen, also said he was impressed by the former president’s speech. Though he went to the gathering “on the fence” about Hillary Clinton and somewhat sympathetic to a Republican candidate, Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich, he said he was impressed with how well the former president articulated his wife’s detailed strategy to improve America.

He contrasted that with Republican front-runner Donald Trump and his chief rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whom he described as running campaigns based on insults, not answers. “She’s got a plan,” Tuzzo said of Hillary Clinton. “All Trump’s got is an ego.”

While Tuzzo was reconsidering his politics, Bill Clinton did what he likes to do after political speeches: He spent about 10 minutes working the rope line in front of the podium, shaking hands and signing autographs.

And then it was time for the former president to return to his motorcade of dark vehicles that would take him to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga, where a private jet would sweep him away to Rochester, where he would again repeat his ritual of campaignin’ and explainin’.

News Staff Reporters Susan Schulman and Sandra Tan contributed to this report. email:

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