Bill Clinton, Lewis sidestep Sanders in metro Atlanta event

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.

Former President Bill Clinton and Congressman John Lewis each made news in recent days as critics of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialism-espousing politico challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But on Saturday, before a crowd of nearly 800 packed into a North Clayton High School auditorium, both largely sidestepped the senator from Vermont. Instead, they sought to portray Hillary Clinton as an experienced, inclusive and lifelong change agent who is best poised to lead the country.

“We are on the verge of being able to grow together again,” said the former president, who only referred to Sanders as his wife’s “opponent.” “You need a change maker who believes in inclusive economics, inclusive politics, inclusive society, and a national security policy … that keeps us safe without giving up who we are as Americans. That’s Hillary.”

Lewis, who reportedly walked back from remarks this week in which he appeared to question Sanders' involvement in the civil rights movement, spoke of his own role in earning the right to vote for African-Americans. Lewis didn't mention Sanders during the College Park event, but urged the crowd to cast their ballot for the former U.S. secretary of state.

“There’s no one in America today better prepared, better able to be president of the United States than Hillary Clinton,” said Lewis, D-Atlanta.

The appearance comes days after Bill Clinton stepped up criticism of his wife's rival at events in New Hampshire, where he mocked Sanders' attacks against a "mythical establishment" and tried to remind the state's residents of their long relationship with the Clintons. Bill Clinton declared himself the "comeback kid" after a surprising second-place finish there in 1992, and his wife won a come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire in 2008.

Yet the state abandoned the Clintons during the primary last week and delivered Sanders a whopping 22-point victory, forcing the Clinton campaign into a must-win situation in South Carolina on Feb. 27.

Hillary Clinton is relying on the state’s heavily black Democratic electorate to fuel her to victory, though Sanders is trying to make new inroads to African-American communities. That’s why events like Saturday’s get-out-the-vote rally are critical for Clinton as she attempts to galvanize Southern black voters.

The event followed a private fundraiser hosted by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and hours before news that conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died Saturday in Texas.

Clinton urged the crowd to vote, saying: “You need to realize that if we get a Republican Congress and a Republican president, it could be a disaster because the next president will probably have between one and three appointments to the United States Supreme Court.”

Clinton would later tell CNN that he always “liked” Scalia “because he never pretended to be anything he wasn’t.”

In an age of angry rhetoric, the former president’s speech was arguably subdued at times — a factor some blamed on the toasty temperature inside. Clinton scored the greatest applause during his introduction, and garnered intermittent bursts of support, such as when he discussed his wife’s views on college affordability and said President Barack Obama has “done a way better job than he gets credit for.”

Garry Stokes, a 29-year-old Jonesboro man who described Clinton as “part of the urban community,” believes his popularity will translate into support for his wife.

Becky Booth, who with Laine Morgan drove in from Decatur to hear Clinton, said she’s a fan of Hillary Clinton based on her own merits.

“I believe she has experience in foreign policy and government in general, and I believe there’s no one more experienced than she (in the race),” said Booth, 65. “Bernie would be a distant second.”

Mary Alexander, a 53-year-old College Park woman who walked three miles to the event, said she plans to vote for Sanders in the primary. “But I won’t pass up the opportunity to hear Bill Clinton speak.”