GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Former Gov. Jim Hunt returned to the campaign trail Friday to make the case to voters that President Barack Obama is the best candidate to look out for North Carolina's middle class.
Hunt, a Democrat who served four terms and remains a popular figure in the state even though his name hasn't appeared on a ballot in 16 years, met with residents at a Greenville home on Friday as part of what's being billed as a "middle class listening tour."
There, Hunt argued that Obama, not Republican Mitt Romney, is best suited to help middle-class families in North Carolina. The Obama campaign plans to hold similar events featuring Hunt in Charlotte and in the Triad. The first was held last week in Raleigh.
"I'm here today as you are because I am concerned about the choice that we're going to make this year," Hunt said on a plush couch at the home of Bonnie Boswell. "The choice we're going to make in the race for president is really going to affect us in North Carolina and determine whether we continue or not on this path of real progress for our people."
Hunt's tour seeks to capitalize on the popularity of the state's longest-serving governor, now 75 and still living in nearby Wilson County. Drawing a contrast with Romney, Hunt said the president understands the importance of public investments in education to help families succeed.
Wearing a button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves and slacks, Hunt pointed out how Obama pushed for additional economic recovery funds to preserve the jobs of 20,000 teachers and other public school personnel in North Carolina. Romney, Hunt said, would cut education spending and can't relate to the struggles of average people.
"Gov. Romney is a man who has had a different kind of lifestyle. He really doesn't get it about the middle class folks," Hunt told a half-dozen people, which included his wife Carolyn.
A spokesman for Romney's North Carolina campaign, Robert Reid, wrote in an email late Friday that "Obama and his Democrat allies are willing to say anything and spread any falsehood to avoid talking about the president's record of fewer jobs, declining incomes, and record poverty."
While the Obama campaign clearly thinks Hunt can help the president in this swing state, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton is also hoping for a boost from him in his uphill campaign against Republican Pat McCrory. Dalton promoted his education platform in a news release by saying Hunt had endorsed it.
Hunt "is one of North Carolina's greatest advocates and we are thrilled to have him back on the campaign trail for the president," Obama campaign spokesman Cameron French said.
Hunt remains a skilled communicator who is liked by Democrats and respected by Republicans, said Brad Crone, a longtime Democratic consultant in state politics. The moderate Democrat won statewide elected office five times from 1972 through 1996. The only time he lost was in 1984 in an epic U.S. Senate race with Republican icon Jesse Helms.
Hunt "is the best retail politician the Democrats have in North Carolina," Crone said.
But Hunt's involvement in the race also underscores the lack of other previous Democratic statewide elected officials campaigning publicly for Obama in a state the president won by about 14,000 votes four years ago.
Outgoing Gov. Beverly Perdue decided not to run for re-election in the face of poll numbers showing her unpopularity. Perdue's predecessor, two-term Gov. Mike Easley, was convicted in state court of a campaign finance charge in late 2010. And former U.S. Sen. John Edwards has been tarnished by a sex scandal and a campaign finance trial earlier this year.
Crone said a younger generation of Democratic leaders needs to pick up the mantle that Hunt wears.
Hunt said he volunteered to help the campaign because "I care about my country and I care about this state that I worked so hard to serve for many, many years."
Caroline Doherty, who participated in the 30-minute conversation chronicled by news cameras and reporters, said it was amazing to meet the governor up-close and hear about his passion for education. Hunt was known as the "education governor" who successfully raised teacher salaries and created the Smart Start early childhood program.
It's great "to see how a lifetime of service to our state really has paid off and how one person really can make a difference," Doherty said.
Hunt gave his own take on the presidential campaign later with reporters, saying news Friday that the nation's unemployment rate had fallen to 7.8 percent was good but that the rate was still too high. Responding to a question about the president's widely panned debate performance this week, Hunt jokingly recalled a U.S. Senate candidate in 1984 — himself — who many say won his first TV debate with Helms.
"The next two were a little closer, but the first one was no contest," Hunt quipped. "So President Obama can come back."