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Bill Clinton’s back.
The former two-term president may have finally found a role in Obama world after struggling to fit in after the caustic Democratic presidential campaign that sullied his reputation.
Clinton is heading up special projects for Haiti and outreach to North Korea for the White House. He was the closer in rural Pennsylvania last month, helping Democratic Rep. Mark Critz win a special election. His campaigning was a factor in Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s narrow victory in Tuesday’s Democratic runoff in Arkansas.
Now, he’s hoping to rally voters for vulnerable Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the swing state of Nevada. Clinton was the headliner at a rally Thursday night.
Democratic candidates up and down the ballot are requesting his help, seeking his backslapping politicking and high-dollar fundraising prowess. And there’s little doubt that this political creature is basking in the attention, if not coveting the opportunity to campaign for Democrats where President Barack Obama may not be as welcome.
“He is very effective,” said retiring Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder of Arkansas, who praised Clinton’s understanding that the party should be a big tent. Still, Snyder added: “He recognizes he’s not effective everywhere, and there are some places where he plays better than others.”
Just like there are some places where Obama plays better than others.
It’s not been easy for Clinton to find his political niche since Obama was elected in 2008 and instantly assumed the spot as the party’s top dog. The 63-year-old, still popular former president faced the challenge of trying to feed his love of politics — and of the spotlight — without upstaging the new guy.
And, of course, there were fences to mend with Obama following the bitter presidential primary that Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, lost.
Clinton’s image took a hit during the 2008 race after a series of campaign-trail outbursts. He called Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war a “fairy tale” and questioned whether the first-term Illinois senator had the experience to lead the country. Clinton fumed that Obama’s campaign “played the race card on me” after Clinton had compared Obama’s success in South Carolina to that of Jesse Jackson, a parallel that black leaders suggested was dismissive.
Clinton later delivered a full-throated endorsement of Obama at the Democratic convention and then campaigned for the nominee. Obama tapped Hillary Clinton for secretary of state.
Since Obama took office, Clinton has focused on his foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, though he’s gradually returned to politics.
Clinton accepted Obama’s request to lead private sector fundraising efforts for earthquake-ravaged Haiti, along with former President George W. Bush. And he visited North Korea to press for — and ultimately win — the release of two jailed Americans.
He was less successful when he served as a White House intermediary to dangle a part-time government position in front of Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter’s primary challenger in hopes he would drop his candidacy. Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak refused and won last month’s primary.
With increasing frequency, officials say Clinton has made himself available for more political activity — aides say he gets more requests than he can fill — and party leaders have called on him for help in specific races. They are mindful that Clinton, like Vice President Joe Biden, appeals to certain voters in places where Obama may not be as warmly received.
“We look at where we believe he can be helpful, and we are thrilled that he has been so willing to do so,” said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who leads the Senate Democrats’ campaign effort. “We look forward to his continuing engagement.”
Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna said Clinton “looks forward to being helpful around the country in the fall.”
Obama has watched his once sky-high job performance rating fall to around 50 percent. He’s pushed forward a sweeping agenda of government expansion and spending that’s given heartburn to many moderate and independent voters. His style is more academic than Clinton, once dubbed Bubba.
More than two-thirds of the country had a favorable opinion of Clinton the last time his popularity was measured, in October. It’s been 10 years since he left office tainted by scandals over an affair with a White House intern and last-minute pardons. Clinton’s “I-feel-your-pain” drawl and hardscrabble upbringing often plays well in conservative parts of the country.
But using Clinton also carries risks. It’s an anti-establishment year and he epitomizes the Democratic establishment.
In Arkansas, Clinton backed Democrat Chad Causey for the nomination in the Arkansas primary race to succeed his former boss, the retiring Rep. Marion Berry — a former Clinton administration official. Causey had only a quarter of the ballot share before Clinton’s endorsement.
The ex-president helped Lincoln defeat Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. He campaigned for Lincoln and filmed an ad that laid out her central argument — that outside groups and labor unions angry at the centrist senator were trying to buy Arkansans’ votes.
Snyder said it was natural for Clinton, instead of Obama, to play such a large role for Lincoln. Clinton is a former governor who counts Lincoln as a longtime friend. Obama, conversely, bypassed the state during the primary and general election and doesn’t have much of a base there.
“Bill Clinton is clearly more effective than Barack Obama right now,” Snyder said — though he quickly added that his comment was specific to Arkansas.
Associated Press Writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press