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Bitterroot residents turn out to see Bill Clinton in Stevensville
The first U.S. president to visit the town of Stevensville, Bill Clinton stumps for Hillary Clinton Sunday morning at the Stevensville High School campus. Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian
Watch video of Bill Clinton speaking in Stevensville

STEVENSVILLE - With 40 minutes to go before Bill Clinton was scheduled to speak in this rural Bitterroot Valley community Sunday morning, the line of western Montanans who wanted to be part of the remarkable 2008 primary campaign twisted and turned farther than the eye could see - and well past the former president's Stevensville High School venue.

"This is really historic that these folks would come to the state of Montana, and probably in my lifetime we will not again have as much influence in deciding who is on the Democratic Party ticket as this year," said Marolanne Stevenson, a Missoula resident who claimed the front of the line.

The clock is closing in on Tuesday, when Montana and South Dakota residents cast their votes and decide in the nation's last primary elections who should be the Democratic presidential nominee.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton? Or Illinois Sen. Barack Obama?

Over the past few months, both candidates - and their spouses - have made multiple stops all across the state hoping to sway voters as the race became ever-more competitive.

With so much at stake for both candidates, and as June 3 draws closer, it's likely that Montana hasn't seen the last of the Clintons or the Obamas. In fact, Michelle Obama - wife of the would-be nominee - will meet with campaign volunteers in Kalispell and Billings on Monday. And other visits by notables from both camps are rumored for Election Day.

It's an exciting time in election history - and for the Bitterroot, said Sue Ann McKay of Florence.

"I feel for the first time in my whole voting career that what I do will matter," McKay said, and added: "I think this is the first time we have ever had a president visit Stevensville."

The largely blue jean and sweatshirt crowd turned out by the countless hundreds for several reasons: Up and down the line, many said they were full-blown Hillary Clinton supporters. Some said they were undecided and were hoping to hear something from Bill Clinton at the Sunday rally that would help them decide.

Others came to see for themselves a U.S. president - indeed, the first ever to visit their ranching community.

Wide-eyed with wonderment, 11-year-old Sylvie Coston surveyed the scene: Secret Service and police patrolling the school grounds, waves of friends and neighbors pouring into the fenced-off area for the crowd, a swarm of media adjusting their cameras - and said: "The whole town of Stevensville is here - and some of Missoula and Hamilton, too."

When Clinton made his long-awaited appearance, the crowd erupted into applause and cheered as he climbed onto his speaking platform - the bed of a red pickup truck.

From the crowd came whistles and a handful of people who yelled in unison: "Thank you, Bill."

Clinton grinned and said, "I am honored, honored to be here on behalf of my candidate for president.

"I hope you are happy that Montana's vote matters and your vote counts."

Since March 1, Clinton said he's been on the campaign trail for his wife and has visited nearly 300 separate communities across the country, visiting big cities and out-of-the-way enclaves.

"I've learned about America doing this," he said. "I've learned a lot about our country that even I didn't know.

"It's a great place. But we've got some serious challenges and you all know it. The economy is in tough shape. It is growing radically and I believe dangerously more unequal.

"We have alienated much of the world and we have to restore America's standing in the world."

As he continued to share his view and what he has learned along the campaign trail, Clinton offered a glimpse into the future, along with a quick election tutorial.

"It appears to me what is going to happen, when all the votes are counted, Hillary will have won more popular votes despite being outspent by $40 million and Senator Obama will have more pledged delegates because of his victories - primarily in February and January in the caucus states - most of which will vote Republican in the fall, I think."

Clinton then explained the delegate count and its complications this way: "You get a delegate at the national convention for every 2,000 people at a caucus; you get a delegate at the national convention for every 12,000 people that vote in the primary.

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"So not surprisingly as a Democrat, I like the primaries better. And I'm glad you've got one because it's easier for everyone to participate."

The challenge before Montana voters comes down to two basic questions, Clinton summarized: Who is the best president to turn the nation's economy around, end the war in Iraq and restore America's standing in the world? And who is the most likely Democratic nominee to beat presidential Republican nominee John McCain?

Even if he weren't married to her, Clinton said he would out campaigning for Hillary.

"I consider her to be the finest candidate I have ever supported for president," Clinton said.

Why?

"I believe that because even though fresh and new is always good, I think it's a great mistake to devalue public service and changing other people's lives for the better," he explained. "This campaign has too often been presented as a choice between experience and change, as if people who labored a lifetime to make other people's lives better should be somehow looked down on because they have done that.

"That is not right. I have done this a long time. And that is not right."

Long before she was first lady or a U.S. senator, Clinton said, his wife spent her entire adult working life committed to public service, to improving health care for families, to helping make education fair and accessible for children with disabilities.

Swept up by his intensity, the audience erupted in cheers of support. When the crowd quieted, Clinton revisited his wife's plan for universal health care, for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq within 60 days of becoming president, for closing loopholes that give tax incentives to companies that outsource their work to other countries.

Clinton explained Hillary's plan to bolster the economy by investing in clean energy, improving America's infrastructure, particularly its railroad system, making higher education accessible to all who want it, and improving veteran care.

Speaking from experience and his unique perspective as a person who once held the job his wife is seeking, Clinton said his candidate for president is the one best prepared for the job.

Aside from having the best plan to turn the economy around, Clinton explained his support for Hillary this way: "She will be the best leader of our diplomacy, the best commander-in-chief of our armed forces - and because she is the best change maker I have ever known."

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