Bill Clinton, out of the Oval Office for nearly a decade and once considered a political liability, is campaigning for Democratic candidates at a pace no one can match, drawing big crowds and going to states President Obama avoids.
If the Republican wave on Nov. 2 ends up a bit weaker than many are predicting, at least some of the credit will have to go to the former president, the most sought-after surrogate for dozens of anxious Democratic congressional and gubernatorial nominees.
Always an intuitive campaigner who could slap backs and dissect policy with equal ease, Mr. Clinton has another appealing quality in these economic hard times: He left office amid high employment and a government surplus. Some people attending his rallies wear buttons saying “I miss peace, prosperity and Clinton.”
Mr. Clinton’s staff says he has campaigned this year for more than 65 candidates at nearly 100 events. Many of the appearances took place in the past few weeks, when Mr. Clinton slowed his work on charitable projects, such as fighting AIDS and malaria, to focus on the election’s final sprint.
The pace would tax anyone, not just a 64-year-old who had major heart surgery in 2004. Consider the past few days.
Mr. Clinton drew 5,000 people last week to an event in San Jose for California’s gubernatorial and congressional Democrats, two days after speaking to 6,000 people at UCLA. A day later, it was 2,000 people in Everett, Wash., for Sen. Patty Murray, and another 2,000 voters that night in Denver on behalf of Sen. Michael Bennet.
Mr. Clinton’s pre-Election Day sprint this week includes stops in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas and Ohio, stumping for endangered House, Senate and gubernatorial Democratic candidates.
And he makes the message personal.
“This man has earned the right to be re-elected,” Mr. Clinton told several hundred people at an outdoor rally for embattled Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler on a visit to North Carolina last week. “All of the things they say in the cartoon attacks don’t apply to him. He’s represented you faithfully.”
Mr. Obama, of course, can draw bigger crowds when he chooses, such as the 35,000 people who turned out recently at Ohio State University. But he’s also burdened, like any sitting president, with tough and controversial decisions.
Mr. Clinton has had a decade for voters to forget some of his less popular actions. That makes him hugely attractive to Democrats seeking election next month. A recent Gallup poll found that voters of all stripes - Democrats, Republicans and independents - are more likely to be swayed by Mr. Clinton’s endorsements than by Mr. Obama‘s.
Given Mr. Clinton’s all-out defense of Mr. Obama’s policies and the lawmakers who voted for them, it’s easy to forget that the two men have never been close. Indeed, they feuded during the long 2008 presidential primary, in which Mr. Obama eventually defeated Mr. Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In New Hampshire, ahead of its primary, a red-faced Bill Clinton said Mr. Obama’s claims about foreseeing the Iraq war’s difficulties were “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” When Mr. Obama won the South Carolina primary, the ex-president testily noted that Jesse Jackson had won it in 1984 and 1988. The remark angered many black voters and officials, who saw it as an effort to belittle Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, accused the Clintons of double-teaming him. “I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” he said in one debate.
Mrs. Clinton is now Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, and if her husband nurses resentments, he hides them well. In speeches that often exceed 40 minutes, he gives detailed defenses of the new health care law, last year’s economic stimulus plan and other Obama policies under fierce Republican attack. Echoing Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton warns that Republicans will take the nation backward if they regain control of Congress.
“I am pleading with you,” he told the UCLA crowd. “Any college student in the state of California that doesn’t vote in this election is committing malpractice on your own future.”
He likens the “tea party” and its supporters to 19th-century politicians. “Some of these positions people haven’t held for 110 years,” Mr. Clinton said in Denver.
In Maryland, stumping for incumbent Gov. Martin O’Malley, he asked, “Why in the world would anybody think about making a change?”
Democrats from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters are counting on Mr. Clinton to keep them from drowning on Nov. 2.
“When people see Bill Clinton,” said Duke University political scientist David Rohde, “they think of better days.”
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