Bill Clinton should be the next first dude.
That was the resounding opinion of the roughly 400 people who packed into a hot gymnasium at Will James Middle School here on Friday night to hear the former president speak in support of his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"It's great to be back in Montana,” he told the crowd. “I love it here."
In an hour-long speech, the former president worked to highlight the differences between Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Over and over he repeated “walls versus bridges,” saying while Trump wants to put up a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Clinton will build bridges between the U.S. and other countries and for citizens as a path to a better life.
“Now the bridge crowd, that’s Hillary, but that crowd’s not naive,” he said. The former secretary of state has the experience to navigate a world that includes threats from terrorism both homegrown and foreign, he said.
“You can build a wall across the Rio Grande River and here we are in Montana, there’s a lot of foreigners in Montana from Canada,” he said to laughter. “If you’re no dummy, bridges work better than walls.”
Clinton's experience was something people who attended the event cited over and over as the reason for their support.
Waylon Bighead, 38, is from Crow Agency. He said Clinton has the "know-how to get things done. As much as I love Bernie, I think she has more experience."
Jon Schneider, 26, traveled from Bozeman. He echoed Bighead's endorsement, saying Clinton's experience put her ahead of Sanders.
"This is the closest rally we're going to get," he said. Schneider drove over with David Swedman, also 26.
"She's good for LGBT issues," he said. "I feel as a gay man she speaks to my minority group."
Clinton repeatedly emphasized how well America is doing. He said the country has the best economy in the world and 90 percent of people now have health care, a statement that was met with huge applause.
Trump is playing on the fears of a struggling middle class that hasn’t seen pay raises in years, he said, but that isn’t the way to fix problems.
“The truth is the way it used to be wasn’t so hot for a lot of people — Native Americans, African Americans, first-generation Americans,” he said.
He hit on a big Montana issue — infrastructure — and said by making sensible investments there and in clean power and manufacturing, the country could create all the jobs it needs.
He also called for more loans from the Small Business Administration to rural communities across the country.
One of the few times the former president tried to draw a line in the sand between his wife and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, her opponent in the Democratic primary, was on affordable college education.
Hillary Clinton, he said, would increase Pell grants, bolster work study opportunities, give people who served in AmeriCorps for two years and then did another year of public service $23,500 tax free to get rid of their debt and allow people to refinance college loans.
“I think debt-free college and manageable debt is a more productive way to achieve this goal” than Sanders’ plan to eliminate college tuition, he said.
Clinton met with tribal leaders before the event and devoted a chunk of the speech to issues in Indian Country.
William Snell, executive director of the the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leadership Council, which met in Billings earlier Friday, said they discussed economic development and how it relates to natural resources.
State Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, said she wasn't a part of the tribal leaders meeting but hoped to talk with Clinton about Native issues. She said schools are underfunded and need more support from the federal government. She said her son is a veteran and she also wanted to discuss problems at the VA.
Peppers said she is supportive of what Sanders has been saying, and she attended his Billings rally, too.
Hillary Clinton, her husband said, would give tax credits for people who invest in places that have high poverty rates and low incomes and would treat drug problems that ravage reservations like a public health issue.
Clinton made several Montana-specific references. He said when Democrat Ted Schwinden was governor, he was “so open and transparent he published his schedule every day” and the public could sit in on meetings. He compared that to Trump, who he criticized for not releasing his tax return.
Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, told a story about Hillary Clinton before the speech.
MacDonald said she was making dinner one night in 1996 when the doorbell rang. It was a package, a book sent from and written by Hillary Clinton, autographed with a handwritten note.
In the book, "It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us," Clinton referenced the Not In Our Town Campaign that happened in Billings after a series of hate crimes.
"Clinton has stood strong for our children, our family and our elders for decades," MacDonald said. "And she will not give up or back down on that powerful mission."
McDonald said the gesture shows how Clinton "pays attention to what is happening in this country."
Montana GOP spokesman Shane Scanlon said Friday that "no sweet talking from Bill can cover up Hillary's anti-coal agenda that will put thousands of Montanans out of work, or her efforts to take away our right to keep and bear arms."
Clinton's stop is one of several before Montana's primary June 7. Sanders made appearances in Billings and Missoula on May 11. Trump will speak at the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark at 4 p.m. on May 26. Tickets are available through the campaign website, www.donaldjtrump.com.
Earlier Friday, Bill Clinton spoke in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Fargo, N.D.
Clinton's last Billings visit was in May 2008 in support of his wife's first campaign for her party's presidential nomination.
Hillary Clinton leads Sanders in pledged delegates, with 1,768 to 1,494; 2,383 are needed to win the nomination. A majority of the 714 superdelegates have declared support for Clinton, though they can switch candidates up until the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia on July 25-28.
Montana is one of several states that hold their primary on June 7, including California, New Jersey and New Mexico.There are 27 Democratic delegates at stake.