PARMA, Ohio -- If any doubt remained about how central the state of Ohio is to President Obama’s reelection campaign, the sight of Bruce Springsteen and former President Clinton on stage at Cuyahoga Community College on Thursday made it clear.
“This is the first time in my life I ever got to be the warm-up act for Bruce Springsteen,” Clinton told 3,000 cheering Obama supporters packed into a gymnasium. “I am qualified, because I was born in the USA -- and unlike one of the candidates for president, I keep all my money here.”
With the Nov. 6 election less than three weeks away, Obama’s campaign deployed two of its biggest star surrogates to this white, working-class suburb of Cleveland, where both took shots at Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Springsteen, who sang solo and played acoustic guitar and harmonica, took a more poetic approach than Clinton, calling Romney “our honorable opponent” even as he skewered him as a man who would favor the wealthy.
After opening a seven-song set with “No Surrender,” Springsteen said his appearance for Obama grew out of his three decades of writing songs “about the distance between the American dream and American reality.”
“I’ve seen it from inside and outside -- as a blue-collar kid from a working-class home in New Jersey, where my parents struggled, not always successfully, to make ends meet,” he said.
Springsteen recalled the night of Obama’s election in 2008 as “an evening when you can feel the locked doors of the past finally being blown open to new possibilities.
“But then -- then comes a hard daily struggle to make those possibilities real in a world that is brutally resistant to change,” he said.
After paying tribute to Obama for the auto industry’s recovery (“I’m thankful GM is still making cars. What else would I write about? I’d have no job without that”), the rock star said he feared Romney would widen the disparity between the rich and “everyday citizens.” Many would end up as “just the scenery in another man’s play,” he said, quoting from his song “Jackson Cage.”
“I’m here today because I’ve lived long enough to know that despite those galvanizing moments in history, the future is rarely a tide rushing in,” Springsteen said. “It’s often a slow march, inch by inch, day after long day, and I believe we are in the midst of those long days right now. And I’m here today because I believe President Obama feels those days in his bones, for all the 100 percent of us.”
With that, Springsteen began strumming his guitar and singing “Promised Land.” He went on to perform “Youngstown,” “We Take Care of Our Own,” “This Land is Your Land” and “Thunder Road,” along with a new call-and-response tune that he wrote based on Obama’s campaign slogan, “Forward.”
The singer’s support was not a surprise -- after backing Democrat John Kerry in 2004, he endorsed Obama in 2008 and sang, with folk singer Pete Seeger and others, at the Lincoln Memorial during Obama’s inaugural celebration. But earlier this year he told the New Yorker magazine that although he supported Obama he did not feel compelled to be a visible part of each presidential campaign.
By all appearances, Clinton and Springsteen were trying to heighten the enthusiasm of Obama supporters and ensure that they turn out to vote, rather than convert the few wavering voters left in Ohio.
Mary Coleman, 56, a Bay Village court bailiff, attended the concert with two grown daughters and a baby grandchild. “I’m a Barack Obama backer for sure, but I’m really here for Bruce,” she said.
Clinton, who has long been accustomed to being the main attraction at his public events, appeared to be starstruck by Springsteen. He introduced him as “one of the most important forces in American music in the last 50 years, one of the coolest dudes I ever met, and a guy who reflects our real American values -- the incomparable Bruce Springsteen.”
Also appearing for Obama in Ohio this week, according to his campaign, are actress Sarah Jessica Parker and singer Crystal Bowersox, both Ohio natives. Actress Natalie Portman campaigned for Obama last month in Cincinnati.
From Parma, Springsteen was headed to Iowa to perform another free concert for Obama on Thursday in Ames, where the president is counting on a robust turnout of state university students.
Clinton, who had already campaigned for Obama in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada, was off in the opposite direction, holding an afternoon get-out-the-vote rally in Wintersville, a small Ohio town near the Pennsylvania border. Republican vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan plans to campaign in the same region on Saturday.