An exhilarated Mike Pence Friday railed against the “fast and loose ethics of the Clintons” to raucous North Carolina Republicans buoyed by the bombshell news that the FBI has launched another investigation tied to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email system for government business.
But if the Republican vice presidential nominee’s aim was to use the October surprise to ignite fresh momentum beyond Johnston County’s Central Marketing Tobacco Warehouse, site of Friday’s rally, there were signs he’s got a difficult task.
While about 1,200 people showed up, dozens of seats in the cavernous hall as well as big spaces in the back were empty. Organizers explained it’s tough to get a big crowd on a Friday night. And there was no consensus among the rank and file whether the news will make a difference.
Pence worked hard to pump up those who attended, and it wasn’t difficult. Hours before he spoke, the crowd chanted “lock her up.” Vendors sold T-shirts declaring “Proud to be a Deplorable,” a reference to Clinton’s characterization of many Trump backers.
FBI Director James Comey set off the latest campaign furor with a letter to Congress Friday saying the agency had obtained additional information in an unrelated case Thursday.
“The FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation,” Comey wrote in the letter. “I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”
Law enforcement officials told multiple news sources, including the New York Times, that the new emails were found on a computer belonging to Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of a Clinton aide. The Times reported they were part of an FBI investigation into text messages from Weiner to a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina.
Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta called the announcement so late in the campaign “extraordinary” and urged the FBI to release all of the details of what it is examining. “We are confident this will not produce any conclusions different from the one the FBI reached in July,” Podesta said, referring to the FBI decision earlier not to seek any prosecution of Clinton.
His eagerness to address the matter as fast as possible underscored the mysterious nature of the new investigation and the volatile impact it could have.
Republicans will work hard in the next few days to use the latest development to drive the argument that Clinton is unfit.
In Smithfield, state Republican candidates and officials, including Gov. Pat McCrory and Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, got the crowd in a celebratory mood.
“The FBI has reopened the case,” said state Sen. Buck Newton, the Republican attorney general candidate. “If that was happening here in North Carolina and I was your attorney general, we’d have never closed the case.”
Pence was ebullient about the state of the race.
Pundits said a week ago things looked bleak for the Republicans, he said, but not anymore – “this race is on.
“Hillary may have the media, the money and the special interests on her side, but we’ve still got her outnumbered.”
He quickly segued into the FBI developments.
He cited the “fast and loose ethics of the Clintons. It sounds like the Department of Justice is starting to feel that way too.” The crowd chanted “lock her up.”
Pence fed off the energy, noting he and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump commended the FBI “for having the courage to reopen this case because no one is above the law.”
“Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before,” Trump said Friday in Manchester, New Hampshire. “We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.”
North Carolina Republicans and Democrats were divided on just what the last-minute surprise will mean.
One Democrat Friday had heard enough suspicious news about Clinton, and said he was now leaning to Trump.
“This is definitely going to influence me,” said James Smythers, a warehouse manager from Princeton, at the Pence rally. “I’ll lean to Trump if he makes her pay for what she's done."
Not all Republicans saw a trend, though.
“Most people have already made up their minds,” said Erin Wenning, a Smithfield restaurant manager.
Suzanne Morse, a Clayton retiree, disagreed, and saw new hope from the news.
“Five days ago I was down in the dumps, reading the polls,” she said. “Now I think there’s hope. It may not make a big difference, it may not be in the millions (of converted voters), but every vote counts.”
Mike Stephens, a retiree from Wilson’s Mills, figured more evidence would come out, so “this has to help a little bit.” But only a little bit – “you don’t know what gets covered up,” he said.
At N.C. State, some Clinton supporters shared the concern.
“The perception she’s untrustworthy has existed for years,” said Luke Perrin, a sophomore from Hickory. “This is going to add to that perception.”
“The difference in support between her and Trump is going to shrink,” added Alex Hornaday, a freshman from Apex.
“It definitely looks bad,” said Andrew Morrison, a sophomore.
But Jacob Trubey, a freshman from Cary, saw little impact. “Most people have already decided who they’re going to vote for and I don't think this will influence people who have decided,” he said.
Most of Pence’s speech was a list of how he and Trump would remake the U.S. government.
Remember, he said, “Whatever progress you made in North Carolina … is in spite of what’s coming out of Washington, D.C. ... not because of it.”
He pounded away at what he called Clinton’s ethical lapses and incompetence as secretary of state.
“Donald Trump has a plan to bring honesty, accountability and real change,” Pence said. “When Donald Trump becomes president we’re gonna drain the swamp.”