Former President Clinton has become a central player in his wife’s presidential campaign. Yet as Hillary Rodham Clinton seeks to build upon her New Hampshire comeback momentum, that role is evolving and coming under new scrutiny.
His recent sharp comments about chief rival Barack Obama, including accusing the Illinois senator of engaging in a “fairy tale” on Iraq, could alienate some Democratic voters. However his popularity among Democrats remains high, a blessing that could cut both ways.
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, the former president turned up the heat in criticizing Obama, accusing him of lacking experience and of overstating his earlier public opposition to the Iraq war.
Such attack tactics usually are left to surrogates in a campaign, or to a vice presidential candidate once party nominees are selected.
At the same time, Bill Clinton’s comments about his wife sometimes seem at odds with her efforts to cast herself as an agent of both experience and change.
As he stumped for her Sunday night, the former president said, “We can’t be a new story.” He went on to suggest that he couldn’t make his wife more like Obama. “I can’t make her younger, taller, male. There’s a lot I can’t do.”
The chemistry between the former first couple has seemed a little awkward of late as he stands behind her at rallies, sometimes looking out of place. Still, in her victory comments on Tuesday night, she called him and their daughter Chelsea the two most important people in her life.
Exit polls in New Hampshire on Tuesday night showed that Bill Clinton remains hugely popular among voters in the Democratic primary. Some 83 percent had a favorable opinion of him. Her approval level was 75 percent.
In fact, 56 percent of those who supported his wife said they would have voted for a third term for her husband — had that been constitutionally possible — compared with a quarter of Obama’s supporters and a third of the supporters of John Edwards who said they would, according to exit polls for The Associated Press and the television networks.
The former president is expected to continue to play an active role in his wife’s campaign as it moves toward contests in Nevada next week and South Carolina on Jan. 26, and on to “Super Tuesday” on Feb. 5 when 21 states vote.
With so many states in play at once, visits by candidate spouses “become more important than ever,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a longtime adviser to Bill Clinton.
As to the former president’s stepped up attacks on Obama, “It’s just part of the business. Barack’s been pretty tough on President Clinton as well,” Begala said. “Let’s not make him out to be an attack dog. His best use is as a character witness for his wife. He is able to tell voters what the real Hillary is like, the Hillary I’ve known for 16 years but voters haven’t.”
Bill Clinton’s role in South Carolina could be important in trying to take votes away from Obama among black Democrats, a group with which the former president has been particularly popular.
“I think the bottom line is he helps her,” said Stephen J. Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University. The former president may remind voters of the past rather than the future, but “she herself reminds everyone of the past when she uses her ‘experience’ theme.” Wayne said the New York senator would raise more eyebrows if the reverse were true — if he wasn’t out campaigning for her.
Yet among some Democrats, his high-profile presence is troublesome. And some fear that if he becomes too critical of Obama it could backfire.
“One head needs to roll more than any other: Bill’s,” former Clinton consultant Dick Morris wrote in an opinion piece in Wednesday editions of The Hill newspaper. “His role in the campaign has been destructive from the moment he took the public stage on Hillary’s behalf.”
On Monday night, the former president went to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. — an area where Obama was surging — and accused Obama of misrepresenting himself on the Iraq war.
While Obama spoke out against the war in 2002 while he was an Illinois state senator, he suggested a year later that “there was no difference” between himself and Bush on the war, Clinton asserted. “Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I have ever seen,” he said.
“Former President Clinton has continued to mischaracterize my record on this and we’re going to have to call him on it,” Obama responded on Wednesday. “I opposed this war from the start,” he told National Public Radio.
Candidate Clinton also weighed in. “The facts are indisputable,” she said. “Senator Obama made a speech in 2002 against the war in Iraq and he deserves credit for that. Then by 2004, he was publicly saying that he didn’t know how he would have voted had he actually been in the Senate and actually agreed with George Bush on the conduct of the war.
“He said he would never vote to fund the war,” she said Wednesday in an interview with CNN. “And then in 2005 and 2006 and 2007, he voted for $300 billion worth of funding.”
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.