DES MOINES, Iowa — Former President Bill Clinton told voters here his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is the only 2008 presidential candidate who is prepared to lead the country.
It was one of the few joint campaign appearances the former first family has made together since Mrs. Clinton, New York Democrat, started her White House bid.Mrs. Clinton is the “best qualified non-incumbent” that he will ever have the chance to vote for in 40 years of going to the ballot box, Mr. Clinton said.
“I would be here tonight if she asked me and we weren’t married,” the former president told the cheering crowd. “I would do anything I could to make her president.”
The former president, laughing, singled out one man in the crowd with a sign that represents the group “I belong to: It says ‘Husbands for Hillary.’ ” The several thousand Democrats in the crowd also waved “Clinton Country” signs and the rally theme — “Ready for change! Ready to lead!” — was emblazoned on banners here at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
The Clinton campaign has been working to paint Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat and her chief rival for the nomination, as inexperienced and not prepared to be president, though Mr. Clinton himself complimented the other Democratic candidates as worthy hopefuls.
In this critical early caucus state, the Clintons are in a three-way battle for headlines and voters. Iowa polls are mixed — some with Mrs. Clinton in the lead and others favoring former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, with Mr. Obama close behind.
Mr. Edwards, whose showing in Iowa in January will be make or break for his campaign, spent the July Fourth holiday week at home in North Carolina with his family. The 2004 vice-presidential nominee led many polls here but has slipped recently. His campaign announced he raised $9 million for the quarter, and his aides said they think he has plenty of cash and organization to be competitive in all the early states.
Mr. Obama will spend two days here this week, visiting voters in small towns across the state. Also spending their Independence Day holiday in Iowa are White House hopefuls Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.
Each candidate will hopscotch across the state in hopes of convincing voters he is the best for the job. But much of the focus will be on the battle between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. She leads him in all national polls, but the surveys are tighter in states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina, where much of the nomination battle will be decided.
A poll done in New Hampshire last month showed former Vice President Al Gore would beat Mrs. Clinton should he decide to run for the White House again. Mr. Gore says he isn’t interested, but a Draft Gore group is running radio ads here in Iowa asking him to give a presidential bid another shot.
One poll released yesterday by American Research Group showed Mrs. Clinton leading her rivals in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.
Though Mr. Clinton is the most popular Democrat in the country, some wonder whether he is an asset or a distraction to his wife’s campaign.
But many Iowans and voters elsewhere who are unhappy with President Bush like the idea of returning the Clintons to the White House. Mrs. Clinton has said in the past, though she didn’t last night, that she can’t put her husband in the Cabinet but would love to make him “ambassador to the world.”
Mrs. Clinton said last night she would be able to “hit the ground running” in January 2009 and got huge applause for promising to give universal health care another shot. She reprised her campaign theme of restoring America’s global standing and also of bringing hope domestically, and lauded the booming economy her husband helped stimulate in the 1990s.
She noted Mr. Clinton did not participate in the Iowa caucus in 1992 because Sen. Tom Harkin was seeking the Democratic nod and joked that she is “thrilled to finally find something in politics” that “my husband didn’t do.”
She asked caucus-goers to turn out for her and noted she “will have some good help along the way” from Mr. Clinton. She finished, and the two hugged as a perfectly timed fireworks show erupted behind them.
Mr. Obama, talking to reporters in Chicago last week, took his own jab at the former first lady’s experience level, saying: “The only person who would probably be prepared to be president on Day One would be Bill Clinton, not Hillary Clinton.”
Mrs. Clinton fell behind Mr. Obama in the most recent fundraising period — with advisers saying she expected to report $27 million for the quarter, compared to her rival’s $32.5 million — but has an organization that trumps most of her opponents.
She has been racking up endorsements from Democratic officeholders, yesterday announcing support from Philadelphia Mayor John Street and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania.
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