updated 10/13/2006 2:58:16 PM ET 2006-10-13T18:58:16

The woman leaned toward the former president conspiratorially.

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"Now get your wife to run," she said.

"I'll try," Bill Clinton responded.

As he moved through the crowd at the farm outside Cazenovia, a reporter asked if those listening had heard him correctly: Was he pushing for his wife to run for president?

"No, you didn't. No, you didn't," he insisted. "I'm very careful. I know what I'm supposed to say about that."

Cheerleader-in-chief
The former president says a lot about his wife running for president, even as New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton remains mum on the question and cruises toward re-election. While he insists he has counseled his wife not to think beyond her current campaign - "or there might not be another one" - the former commander in chief has clearly become cheerleader in chief.

Some examples:
-"I do believe that if she were elected, she would be magnificent," he recently said in a lengthy profile in the New Yorker magazine.
-"I don't know if she's going to run. I don't know if she'll win if she does. But if she ran and won, she'd be good for America," he said on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" last month.

While the senator's aides carefully avoid talking publicly about her presidential ambitions, the former president has no such restrictions. There are times, however, when he dials back the rhetoric, especially when he's in her company.

"I'm in the support business. Whatever she does will make me happy," Bill Clinton said recently as the couple made what has become a regular pilgrimage to New York's State Fair. "If she decided to spend her six years in the Senate and then go help me in my work around the world and we could travel together, that would make me happy too."

"Let's talk about the fair. Let's talk about New York state issues," the former first lady interjected.

Democrat's top draw
The former president is on the road a lot these days, traveling the world in his battle against AIDS, raising funds for disaster relief, engaging in a high-profile battle with Fox News and campaigning for scores of fellow Democrats as the midterm elections near. He has, if anything, reclaimed the mantle as the most visible and in-demand star of his party.

He is also out there on his wife's behalf when she is in Washington.

"I do a lot of things for her that she can't do," he said.

Or won't do, for now.

She avoids trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that kick off the presidential nominating process. He was in New Hampshire in June. He will headline the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines on Saturday.

"He's been through this, so he's an integral part of her campaign for the presidency," said former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, who expects Sen. Clinton to become a full-fledged White House candidate.

Calling the former president "a master politician," D'Amato said, "his value as a political supporter is incalculable."

Pluses and minuses
For all his skills, the former president also brings some heavy political baggage, from Whitewater real estate to sex with a White House intern, from impeachment to last-minute pardons. In a divided nation, for every Democrat who sees Clinton as a rock star, there is a Republican who reviles him.

Any Clinton presidential candidacy also would revive tabloid-style questions about the state of their marriage.

"What is it, a downside by 2 points and an upside by 30 points? I'll take that downside anytime," D'Amato said. "People have short memories. That's gone. It's over."

If there's anyone who knows how to make a comeback, it's Bill Clinton.

The former president's favorable rating among voters nationwide, which was just 46 percent at the end of 2002, had risen to 63 percent by April of this year, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Public opinion
National polls rate Sen. Clinton as the Democratic front-runner for 2008. She has assembled a veteran campaign team, has millions in her Senate account that can be converted to a presidential run and has vastly expanded her national list of supporters.

While the former president is seen as a big asset, there can awkward moments when they are together.

At Coretta Scott King's funeral earlier this year, he clearly upstaged his wife, his dynamic podium presence a sharp contrast to her low-key delivery.

"Like a good Broadway performer, the eyes go to him," said independent pollster Lee Miringoff, head of Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion. "She has celebrity status on her own, but he's still the larger marquee name."

Former New York city mayor Edward Koch doesn't see that as a problem.

"Was it a problem for John Kennedy that his wife upstaged him?" Koch asked.

For his part, Clinton routinely plays down his role in his wife's political life.

"I am a Senate spouse, part-time case worker for Senator Clinton in Westchester County," he told a luncheon hosted by her at the State Fair.

She had a different message.

"He is also my greatest adviser and counselor," she told the crowd.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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