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Bill Clinton’s challenge: Keep focus on his wife

Bill Clinton has delivered 30 years’ worth of campaign stump speeches as a political candidate, governor and president. His latest effort is his shortest yet at about eight minutes long, and perhaps his most challenging: boiling down, in the pithiest and warmest way, why his wife should be in the White House.
/ Source: The New York Times

Bill Clinton has delivered 30 years’ worth of campaign stump speeches as a political candidate, governor and president. His latest effort is his shortest yet at about eight minutes long, and perhaps his most challenging: boiling down, in the pithiest and warmest way, why his wife should be in the White House.

Mr. Clinton is notably garrulous on an impressive range of topics: Touring a New Hampshire fair on Sunday, he gave an impromptu master class to reporters on how to grow oversized watermelons and pumpkins. So when it comes to a subject he could dissect on a cellular level, like his wife, he could probably speak for days.

The goal is to be succinct and memorable in introducing his wife at campaign rallies, as he did Sunday in New Hampshire and here in Iowa on Monday — yet not so memorable that his remarks overshadow hers. His prose, their advisers say, should vividly showcase Hillary Rodham Clinton’s accomplishments as a Democratic senator from New York and cast her as the most qualified contender.

It is also Mr. Clinton’s job to try to knock down any doubts about Mrs. Clinton’s electability in a national race. Mr. Clinton usually tries to sound neutral, noting that in her Senate re-election race in 2006, Mrs. Clinton carried dozens of New York counties that President Bush had won. Yet after delivering these statistics at a rally on Sunday evening in Portsmouth, N.H., Mr. Clinton had a testier moment as well.

“This electability thing is a canard; it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” Mr. Clinton told a crowd of several thousand people. “What you need to figure out is, Who would be the best president?”

Mr. Clinton’s words carry weight, even if his bias is obvious. He often tries to minimize that bias — as if that were possible — by offering a somewhat contorted testimonial: Even if they were not married, he says, he would still campaign for her as the best candidate.

He can be self-deprecating about his own bona fides. “I have a pretty unique perspective about what the challenges of the job are,” he said in Portsmouth and at a rally earlier Sunday in Concord, N.H.

But he can be uneven in keeping the spotlight on her: Here, on Monday morning, he promoted his administration’s economic track record, while in New Hampshire on Sunday he kept the focus on what his wife would do as president.

The inner wonk stays buried for this speech — he keeps the dry policy to under a minute. At the same time, though, Mr. Clinton sometimes speaks in boilerplate language that leaves audiences still.

“She has been working on education for more than 25 years; she has a very good program on that,” he said in Portsmouth. “She has a real understanding of what it would take to withdraw from Iraq.”

The former president barely dwells on Mrs. Clinton’s years as first lady; instead, he focuses on her Senate years and her intellect. She has “the best combination of mind and heart” he has ever seen, he has said; in New Hampshire on Sunday, he linked her abilities with her agenda, saying “she has the best plan to give us a clean, green energy future to create jobs, not cost jobs.”

Mr. Clinton devotes a full minute, and sounds particularly emphatic, on the next bit — asserting that other nations and world leaders are pulling for Mrs. Clinton’s election in 2008. The leaders are not named but seem to be from all over — Asia, Africa, some in Europe, he has said. On Sunday he roped in voters across Europe and Canada as well, citing a new poll that found Mrs. Clinton more popular than the other American presidential candidates in those countries.

Hillary Clinton’s life has taken her from first lady to senator to secretary of state.

“You want to fix America’s position in the world overnight?” he said in Portsmouth. “Elect Hillary president.”

As for raw emotion, it usually comes with the closing anecdote: Mr. Clinton invariably chokes up or bites his lower lip as he recalls how a New York firefighter grabbed his arm on a golf course one day and told him that Mrs. Clinton recognized early the potential health threats of 9/11 and sought assistance for workers at the site who became ill.

“I was standing there in tears, practically,” Mr. Clinton said in Portsmouth, describing the firefighter’s praise for her. “He said, ‘I would do anything I could to make her the next president.’ ”

The timing of the anecdote can be fuzzy: Mr. Clinton first gave the account during an Iowa trip in early July; in speeches during this Labor Day weekend, he said he spoke to the firefighter “a few weeks ago” and “the other day.” His advisers say the firefighter talked to him in June.

What really matters, of course, is whether the Clintons can persuade the firefighter to appear on the campaign trail at some point and hail Mrs. Clinton. She is indeed popular with New York firefighters, but one from the days after 9/11 could prove powerful. For now, though, she has Mr. Clinton’s testimonial — a singular boon, political analysts say, especially since Mrs. Clinton’s speech sometimes drags.

“That’s why Bill is such a tremendous asset,” said Ruth Sherman, a political communications consultant, who finds Mrs. Clinton’s stump speech to be awkward at times. “He cannot, however, do it for her endlessly.”