Looking back: The day Joe Biden came to Prineville
It was late October 1992. Crook County was still on the radar of national presidential campaigns, as it was the last bellwether county in the nation – having always given most of its votes to the person elected president.
Crook County had backed the eventual presidential winner – whether Democrat or Republican – in every election since its formation in 1882.
But 1992 was going to seriously test that status. Democrat Bill Clinton was leading President George H.W. Bush and Independent candidate Ross Perot in national polls as Election Day neared, and Crook County, always a generally conservative community, was seemingly voting more consistently Republican as the century moved toward its final years.
As national and international media swarmed into Prineville, even locals had a difficult time getting a true sense of how the county would go that fall. The Central Oregonian conducted a countywide phone poll weeks before the vote that showed the Arkansas Democrat leading President Bush by just four percentage points. A poll among Crook County High School students had Perot in a landslide, and KRCO radio's poll showed Clinton with just a 1% lead.
The pull of the bellwether nearly drew Clinton to Prineville. Secret Service and Crook County law enforcement had been in conversation and preparations for Clinton to fly into Redmond and travel to Prineville for a rally at the Crook County Fairgrounds. That event was scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 21. However, the plans were scratched on the Sunday prior.
"We're kind of disappointed and relieved at the same time," Clyde McLain, Crook County undersheriff, said at the time.
Clinton would have been the first presidential candidate since John Kennedy in 1959 to come to Crook County. Kennedy visited Powell Butte and Lord's Acre Day Sale.
On that same Sunday, Oct. 18, a town hall on the election was held at the fairgrounds. The town hall featured representatives for President Bush, candidate Perot and Gov. Clinton. The forum was organized and paid for by local backers of Perot, but the bellwether status of the county helped lure the statewide campaign manager of Bush, Bill McCormick, to represent the president. State Perot chair Bill Maher was on hand to represent Perot.
The surprise representative of Clinton was a U.S. senator and former presidential candidate — and a future vice president and current presidential candidate, Joe Biden. Biden was in the region visiting family, and he was in Oregon to campaign for Clinton. He accepted the request from the campaign to appear in Prineville.
Bruce Beyers, a TWA pilot and Perot backer, organized the event and served as moderator. It didn't take the senator long to realize that the pointed questions weren't just going to come from partisan audience members. Beyers asked Biden if he was a "servant of the people," why was he here, who was paying him and who had funded his trip.
While the audience groaned a bit, Biden said he wanted to come see his son, who was doing social work in the Portland area, and that the Clinton campaign had flown him, adding that no tax dollars were used. The question was a precursor to what many felt about the forum – that it became an event to showcase the Perot candidacy over that of the traditional party candidates.
McCormick and Biden did do some old-school Dem-GOP wrestling. McCormick noted how Clinton's running mate, Al Gore, had fashioned himself as a staunch environmentalist but had backed a dam project in his state of Tennessee that had threatened the darter fish.
Biden responded by saying, "Clinton, not Gore, is running for president," adding, "Thank God Dan Quayle isn't president," referring to Bush's vice president, who was often belittled for various gaffes he made (something Biden would come to share).
That prompted a local anti-abortion activist, Eddie Bennett, to say that he appreciated Quayle, that he best represented evangelical Christians in national politics. Biden responded by saying, "Under Clinton, all Americans will be heard." The senator added that he had attended church all his life and was offended by the politicizing of religion. "Religious tolerance" is what the nation was founded upon, not a specific religious belief.
McCormick pushed the president's efforts on education, noting how he wanted to allow parents to be able to send their children to any school, and that he would give tax breaks to parents who would need financial assistance to do so. He added that Clinton's Arkansas ranked near the bottom of nearly all education statistics.
Biden was the first to give a closing statement, noting that "Americans had always had the courage to take a chance when times were bad."
Maher, representing Perot, told those on hand, "You and I have a problem with our government. You and I have the solution, and that's the ballot box."
In his summation for Bush, McCormick urged a vote for a proven leader and pushed attendees to consider the poor health statistics from the state of Arkansas when contemplating Clinton.
Following a final word from the moderator, the future vice president's time before the Prineville public — and a whopping 150 people were on hand — was concluded.
There were a couple more weeks of polls and Crook County being inundated with national and international media, all seeking the secret to the county's capacity to back winners, or to get a hint of who local voters would back in 1992.
On Election Day, Nov. 3, Crook County lost its bellwether status, backing President Bush by just three percentage points over President-Elect Clinton, 2,702 votes to 2,509, 36% to 33%. Perot received 2,001 votes, 27%.
For better or worse, presidential election years would forever be much quieter in Crook County post 1992.
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