Speaking at UNC Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama called on voters to support Democrats Hillary Clinton and Deborah Ross – arguing that a Clinton victory here will mean she wins the election.
Obama spoke to 16,000 people gathered in the unusual November heat at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Michael Hooker Fields. Musician James Taylor performed ahead of the president’s speech.
Obama noted North Carolina’s swing-state role in this year’s election and urged the crowd to vote early, an option that’s available through Saturday.
“The fate of the republic rests on your shoulders,” he said. “The fate of the world is teetering, and you, North Carolina, are going to have to make sure that we push it in the right direction.”
The president had criticism for both Republican Donald Trump and GOP Sen. Richard Burr – highlighting the importance of Burr’s close Senate race with Ross.
Obama said he once worked out with Burr while both were senators and he found Burr to be a “decent guy,” but he finds the Republican’s campaign rhetoric troubling. He slammed Burr for joking about a “bull’s-eye” on Clinton in a leaked recording published this week. Burr has apologized for the comment.
“You don’t talk about violence against public officials, even in a joke,” Obama said. “This is becoming normal. This is the red meat they’re throwing their audiences, and it’s not normal, and it’s not who North Carolina is.”
Obama also said Burr’s promise to keep a Supreme Court seat vacant if Clinton wins is troubling.
“Eleven years ago, Richard Burr said a Supreme Court without nine justices would not work,” he said. “What changed? Only Republican presidents get to nominate judges? Is that in the Constitution?”
Burr later walked back his court comment in a statement to McClatchy, saying he would “assess the record of any Supreme Court nominee,” but that he had doubts Clinton could put up someone he would support.
Obama said he’s concerned that Republicans in Congress will try to block Clinton’s efforts if she becomes president. “Gridlock is what happens when Republican politicians like Richard Burr decide ... that they will oppose anything that’s good for the country because a Democrat proposes it,” he said. “Hillary will continue the progress we’ve made, but she’ll need allies like Deborah Ross.”
Burr’s campaign said the president’s focus on the Senate race signals trouble for Ross, a former state lawmaker and lobbyist.
“It’s clear by President Obama’s speech that national Democrats are pressing the panic button on Deborah Ross’ campaign now that North Carolina voters are learning about her penchant for protecting sex offenders instead of standing up for victims and their families,” Burr spokesman Jesse Hunt said after the speech. He was referring to concerns Ross expressed about the creation of the sex offender registry while leading the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1990s.
Obama also had strong words for Trump, who he said is “unfit to be commander-in-chief” and “brags about how being famous allows him to get away with sexual assault.”
“We have to stop thinking that his behavior is normal, that’s it’s within the bounds of our political discourse,” he said. “This office, it’s about who you are and what you are, and it doesn’t change after you occupy the office.”
Trump, Obama said, “has been getting help from Republican politicians in this state that have been trying to keep you from voting,” citing the state’s 2013 voter ID law that was recently overturned in federal court.
Many of the people attending Wednesday’s rally shared the president’s view of Trump.
“I can’t imagine how they can vote for someone who talks about women the way he does,” said Anne Goode of Durham. “He has no respect for anybody. I just think it’s a really dark time for this country.”
The Trump campaign issued a statement during Obama’s rally quoting U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from Cashiers. Meadows said Obama is campaigning for Clinton because he “desperately needs a liberal ally to save the legacy of his Presidency, and Hillary Clinton would represent a third Obama term.”
The president said Clinton isn’t “flashy” and is sometimes “under-appreciated,” but she’s likely the most qualified candidate to run for president in the country’s history.
“You’ve got a candidate who is actually worthy of your vote – a person who is probably the most qualified person to ever run for this office,” Obama said. “Here is somebody who has dedicated her life to making this country better.”
Some at the rally were less enthusiastic about Clinton. UNC student Austin Curran-Bennett said he was looking forward to seeing Obama, who has done an “inspiring” job of connecting with his generation. He’s not fond of Clinton or Trump, but “I understand it was important to vote for Hillary so somebody like Trump can’t get into office,” he said.
Ross spoke at the rally shortly before Obama arrived and condemned Burr’s “bull’s-eye” comment. “He’s got to go,” Ross said. “Richard Burr is not a bad guy. He’s just forgotten who he works for. He works for you.”
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Roy Cooper had similar criticism for his opponent, Gov. Pat McCrory. He said McCrory has turned his back on teachers and that teacher pay should be raised to at least the national average. He also called for a repeal of House Bill 2, the law limiting protections for LGBT people.
“Education is not only in our constitution, but it is in our DNA as North Carolinians,” Cooper told the crowd.
McCrory has touted the teacher raises he has signed into law as governor.
Obama’s visit to Chapel Hill is the latest event in a jam-packed schedule of presidential campaign rallies this week in North Carolina – a sign of the state’s high stakes for the candidates.
Polls for the crucial battleground state are tight. The RealClearPolitics average of polls showed a tie between Clinton and Trump on Wednesday. If Clinton carries North Carolina, it’s unlikely Trump will be able to secure enough electoral votes from other states to win the election.
On Friday, four days before the election, Obama will return to the state for a 2 p.m. rally at Fayetteville State University’s Capel Arena and a 6 p.m. Charlotte rally.
Vice President Joe Biden was in Charlotte on Tuesday, a day after Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine was in Sanford and Jacksonville.
Clinton will be in Raleigh and Winterville on Thursday, her campaign announced Wednesday. She will speak at 3:15 p.m. at Pitt Community College and then go to Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek for a 7:45 p.m. rally that also features former primary rival Bernie Sanders and musician Pharrell Williams. Doors open at 4:45 p.m. at Walnut Creek.
Trump will rally supporters at 4 p.m. Thursday in Concord and at 7 p.m. Thursday at The Farm in Selma. Doors open at 4 p.m. for the event at The Farm.
And Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence will hold a 2 p.m. rally on Friday in Greenville.
Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, will be holding a series of rallies Saturday in Elizabeth City, Charlotte and Asheville.
“We’ve got six days to decide the future of this country,” Obama said Wednesday.