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By MARC HUMBERT
Former President Clinton’s angry response to questions about Osama bin Laden has partisans of every persuasion certain it will energize voters in the elections and affect a possible presidential bid by his wife.
Conservatives immediately labeled the interview a prime example of the soap opera that would run daily should another Democrat — say, for example, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — win the White House.
Not so, countered Democrats. They argued the former president’s feisty dressing-down of Fox News’ Chris Wallace is just the wake-up call the party’s liberal base needed six weeks before the election, a pointed criticism of the Bush administration’s bungled search for bin Laden.
Either way, don’t expect the furor to subside any time soon.
"We should replay that interview as often as possible," chortled Republican strategist Nelson Warfield on Tuesday.
"In this election there’s been a lot of worry among Republicans about whether our base is motivated and is going to turn out to vote," Warfield said. "Nothing motivates the Republican base more than some puffy pontification from Bill Clinton. When he has a little fit on TV, it reminds us of the future that awaits if the Democrats should ever win another national election."
In the exchange with Wallace, the former president contended that, unlike him, the newly installed Bush administration ignored bin Laden until the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try, they did not try," Clinton said in the interview broadcast Sunday. Clinton also attacked Wallace for a "conservative hit job" by asking about his administration’s failure to get bin Laden.
In the wake of the interview, the Clinton camp denied he had lost his cool.
"That wasn’t a question, it was an accusation," said Clinton spokesman Jay Carson. "He knew exactly what he was doing and we knew exactly what we were going to do if he did that, as we suspected he would. But it’s not what we wanted."
President Bush did not respond directly to Clinton’s charges at a news conference Tuesday, saying, "I’ve watched all this, you know, fingerpointing and, you know, namings of names and all that stuff. Our objective is to secure the country."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenged Clinton’s claim that he did more than many of his conservative critics to pursue bin Laden and accused the former president of leaving no comprehensive plan to fight al-Qaida.
On the Democratic side, party chairman Howard Dean praised Clinton for taking on "the right-wing propaganda machine."
Sen. Clinton, often mentioned as the leading Democrat for a 2008 run, said her husband’s fire will help Democrats as they try to take control of the House in November.
"I think my husband did a great job in demonstrating that Democrats are not going to take these attacks," the New York senator, who polls show is headed for easy re-election, said Tuesday.
The former president largely is seen as an asset to his wife if she seeks the Democratic nomination, a potential drawback in a general election in which the name Clinton elicits strong feelings on both sides.
Still immensely popular with the party’s base, he is a key draw at fundraisers and a masterful political strategist. In fact, the heated exchange represented something of a departure for an ex-president who, in recent months, has been largely content to boost his wife’s stature.
"I do believe that if elected she would be magnificent" as president, he told the New Yorker magazine just before she crushed anti-Iraq war activist Jonathan Tasini in a September primary.
There is a lack of agreement on whether the former president really did know what he was up to by taking on Wallace with such vehemence.
Conservative columnist John Podhoretz, writing in Tuesday’s New York Post, called it "the Bubba blowup" and "a full-bore tantrum on the small screen."
But fellow conservative William Kristol, writing Monday for The Weekly Standard, suggested Clinton might have been laying out a battle plan for Democrats to fight Republican charges that they are "unreliable in the war on terror."
And, as Kristol noted, "Hillary Clinton has been having problems with the left wing of the Democratic Party. With this interview, Bill Clinton has the entire left wing of the Democratic Party rallying to him."
Still others say Clinton’s outburst could cut both ways.
"I think he knew what he was doing. And, I think he lost his temper," said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on Clinton’s successful 1996 re-election effort.
Sheinkopf called Clinton’s performance "a two-edged sword" for Democrats, reminding voters of charges that the party is soft on terrorism but also demonstrating that the last Democratic president wasn’t against using force.
"Clinton had no option but to defend the Democrats and defend his performance," Sheinkopf said.
If nothing else, the interview served to again put the other Clinton back in the spotlight at a time when much of the attention has shifted to his wife.
No big deal, said Sheinkopf.
"We’re two years away from 2008," the Democrat said.
"It’s part of this huge collection of baggage she hauls with her into a national campaign," the GOP strategist said. "Do voters really want to go back into four years of the national soap opera that is the Clintons in the White House?"
Associated Press Writer Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press