Obama says he's ready to 'pass the baton'
CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> President Barack Obama made his debut on the campaign trail Tuesday for Hillary Clinton, declaring himself "ready to pass the baton" during a boisterous rally in this battleground state on a politically challenging day for his preferred successor.
"My faith in Hillary Clinton has always been rewarded," Obama told an overflow crowd of thousands at the Charlotte Convention Center, where he heaped praise on his former secretary of state as she perched on the edge of a chair a few feet away.
Neither the president, nor Clinton, nor any of the other speakers on the program here made a single mention of the campaign news that dominated the day: the announcement by FBI Director James Comey that his agency will not recommend criminal charges against Clinton for her use of a private email server but that it found her staff "extremely careless" in handling sensitive material.
Obama instead recounted his growing confidence in Clinton's abilities from the time they were Democratic primary rivals to her tenure as secretary of state to her newfound status as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee against Republican Donald Trump.
"There has never been any man or woman more qualified for this office than her. Ever. And that's the truth," said Obama, who appeared sans suit jacket and with the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up.
He said that when confronted with adversity, Clinton has a tendency to "stand up straighter and come back stronger."
The pair traveled together aboard Air Force One to North Carolina, a state that has preferred Republican presidents but where Clinton sees a real opportunity this year against Trump. Obama prevailed in the Tar Heel State in 2008 against John McCain only to lose it four years later to Mitt Romney.
North Carolina has been won by Republicans in eight of the last 10 cycles.
Underscoring the importance of the state to his campaign, Trump was countering with a rally in Raleigh, about 150 miles away, on Tuesday night. As Clinton's event wrapped up here, several hundred people were lined up in 95-degree heat for Trump's rally, which was set to begin at 7 p.m. in a downtown performing arts center.
Two of the state's most prominent Republicans -- Gov. Pat McCrory and Sen. Richard Burr -- both declined to attend the Tuesday evening rally with Trump, citing other obligations to the local media. The presumptive Republican nominee is expected to be joined by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, believed to be under consideration as a Trump running mate.
Clinton, whose event was attended by Democratic members of Congress and the party's nominee for governor, spoke ahead of Obama, making several references to their former status as rivals.
As they came out on stage together, Obama smiled broadly, and appearing relaxed, pumped his fist and helped lead chants of "Hillary, Hillary, Hillary." The two embraced after Clinton's remarks.
In a statement last week, Trump predicted he would "do great" in North Carolina.
"People of North Carolina want strength, protection and jobs, and President Obama and Hillary Clinton have let them down for many years," Trump said. "I will bring jobs back to North Carolina, and our country, like never seen before."
There has been limited independent polling in the state, but what's available suggests a competitive contest.
One survey released last week by the conservative Civitas Institute put Clinton at 42 percent and Trump at 40 percent, with Libertarian Gary Johnson at 6 percent. A poll last week by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found a wider margin, with Clinton leading Trump, 48 percent to 38 percent, and Johnson at 8 percent.
Part of Obama's aim in North Carolina, aides say, will be to bolster Clinton's standing among college-educated voters and African Americans, as well as among younger voters, who were part of his winning coalition but sided in large numbers during the primaries with Clinton's rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
As Obama begins to campaign in earnest for Clinton, aides said, he will not just make the case for why she is best poised to succeed him. The president will also raise money to help fill her campaign coffers and encourage key constituency groups to register to vote in time.
Inside the convention center, enthusiasm for Clinton didn't seemed to have been dampened by the morning's news on the email investigation.
Mary Beth Ferrell, a public high school teacher, who traveled more than an hour from Winston-Salem, was watching the landing of Air Force One on her phone as she waited for Obama and Clinton to make their way to the rally.
"I just think it's time to move beyond this," Farrell, 54, said about the email issue, though she acknowledged Republicans weren't likely to do that. "That's all they've got. They don't have a candidate."
Deborah Wellington, who worked in computer networking before she retired, said she was peeved by the three hours she had to wait to get into the rally but wasn't bothered by Clinton's email practices.
"I understand email security," said Wellington, 64, a Charlotte resident. "There should have been somebody else monitoring this. She's got people for that."