INDIANA, Pa. -- Bill Clinton noticed the hand-painted sign referring to his wife immediately upon entering the Indiana University of Pennsylvania gym: "Rural Country = Clinton Country."
"Hillary's campaign has concentrated heavily from the beginning on the small towns, the rural areas, the really small towns all over America -- the backbone of the country," Mr. Clinton said to 2,600 jammed into the gym yesterday.
"If we win in Pennsylvania, and we win by a big margin, it will have to be in places like Indiana," he said.
The former president has been New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's biggest weapon in the towns between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, making almost 34 public appearances in spots around what's called the Pennsylvania "T" since early March.
While the campaign has employed the strategy for months -- partially to wring out from every state as many delegates as possible -- it may be paying new dividends in Pennsylvania, thanks to Sen. Barack Obama's comments last week that some small-town residents were "bitter" and therefore "cling" to religion and guns while voting against their own interests.
"It's important to come to these smaller towns," Indiana County Commissioner Patty Evanko said at IUP. "They need to know their vote counts and their voice counts. This is what the grass roots are about -- these are the people on the fixed incomes, dealing with high gas prices."
Last weekend, Mr. Clinton hit 11 small towns and Indianapolis in a tour across North Carolina, Central Pennsylvania and the state of Indiana. The past three days, including today, he will have gone to 15 more small Pennsylvania towns.
"He's a bear," Gov. Ed Rendell told The New York Times of Mr. Clinton's willingness to campaign in the state's hinterlands. "He always wants more. Hillary never asks for more, but Bill always asks for more."
Mr. Rendell, who has played a big role in plotting Mrs. Clinton's strategy said her husband "goes to places nobody else goes to."
In many places, people say it's the first visit to their burg by a former president or candidate in a generation -- the first since Jimmy Carter, or Hubert Humphrey or John Kennedy.
Looking around the Indiana University crowd, Ms. Evanko said, "Most of the people here weren't even born yet" when Mr. Carter vistited in 1989.
Due to all the stops, Mr. Clinton -- who works every post-appearance rope line and spends time between events reading and playing the "Oh Hell" card game with his traveling party -- is often late. He was 45 minutes tardy to IUP yesterday and 75 late to Kittanning Senior High School.
The small-town strategy follows one the campaign deployed in Alabama, where Mr. Clinton made dozens of stops leading up to the Feb. 5 primary, even though Mr. Obama was the clear frontrunner. While the Illinois senator won the popular vote by 14 points, Mrs. Clinton came away only two delegates behind (27 to 25, according to The Associated Press count.)
Pennsylvania has a similar process, making it important not to cede any congressional districts.
With Mrs. Clinton behind Mr. Obama in the nationwide delegate count, 1,504 to 1,640, the campaign is deploying Mr. Clinton to chip away at that lead in the most delegate-rich state still on the calendar.
Yesterday and today he was going to towns around Western Pennsylvania in the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 9th districts, which have a combined 17 delegates at stake. Because of the Democratic Party's complicated bonus-delegate system, not all districts have the same number of delegates. In Philadelphia's 2nd district alone, nine delegates are at play.
"Every vote counts," said Armstrong County commissioner Rich Fink. "We saw that in the  election. Every vote counts."
Mr. Clinton did not have to mention Mr. Obama's "bitter" comments at two early appearances yesterday, but he did not have to -- they were being repeated along the talk radio shows dominating the dial all along Route 422.
Between that talk and the DJs at campaign events playing John Mellencamp's "Small Town," it would have been redundant.
Mr. Obama has said he regrets his words and worries the brouhaha will distract Democrats from reaching out to rural voters, while emboldening Republicans.
Chuck Pascal, the mayor of Leechburg, Armstrong County, and an Obama supporter, said that even though the Clinton campaign was clearly trying to ride the bitterness issue through Mr. Clinton's rural visits, the Illinois senator was "absolutely right" in his original comments.
"Voters vote on guns because they see little difference between the parties on economic issues," said Mr. Pascal, a critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement that Mr. Clinton signed.
Three-quarters of Mr. Clinton's events the past three days were scheduled for schools, which the Obama campaign has also targeted nationwide.
Indiana County Democratic Party chair Tammy Shetler said she pleaded with Mrs. Clinton after her St. Patrick's Day visit to Pittsburgh to send someone to talk to Indiana University's 14,000-strong student body.
"Don't forget the smaller places and IUP. There are a lot of young people and Obama is flooding this place," she said she told Mrs. Clinton.
There are off-notes in the Bill Clinton rural strategy. Even if Mrs. Clinton wins delegate pluralities across Pennsylvania and wins the remaining primaries, she may well not be able to catch up to Mr. Obama's nationwide total.
And in Texas -- where Mr. Clinton made 50-odd stops employing the same kind of small-town strategy-- the delegate counts ended up near even, even though Mrs. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 3 points.
The Arkansas native, who's well-known for his campaign skills, uses an underdog appeal to end lots of the small town events.
"I am telling you, if you vote for her, you will always be proud you did. And don't you let anybody tell you she can't win," he said in full Southern drawl in a muggy Kittanning gym. "I've got a couple rules in politics, and if people are telling you you can't win, it's 'cause they're afraid you will. And when people tell you you oughta quit, it's cause they're afraid you won't."
Tim McNulty can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Correction/Clarification: (Published April 18, 2008) Former President Bill Clinton has made 34 campaign stops, not 70, in Pennsylvania cities and towns since early March, with another six stops scheduled. A story and a graphic yesterday both overstated the number of stops. First Published April 17, 2008 4:00 AM