When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign advisers laid out their new political strategy in a private conference call with allies last Tuesday, Bill Clinton was not on the line. He did not need to be. The message being delivered was his.
A day earlier, Mr. Clinton had unveiled the campaign’s new talking points at rallies in Iowa. His wife was “a change agent,” “a proven agent of positive change” and “a lifetime advocate of a change agenda.”
The “change, change, change” phrase, as some advisers call it, was coined by Mr. Clinton after he told campaign officials that the old strategy of running like an incumbent front-runner was not enough, advisers said. The Clintons had to wrest the message of change from Senator Barack Obama.
On the conference call, the campaign’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, reinforced the idea. “Let me go through the basic message frame,” he said; a reporter was given access to the call by two participants on it. “If you want to have change in this country, if you want a new beginning, then how about electing someone who has a lifetime of making change?”
Mr. Clinton is not running his wife’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. But less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, and with polls showing a tight race, he has become the most powerful force in her political operation besides the candidate herself.
He is shaping strategy, challenging advisers on their assumptions and acting like a vice-presidential candidate in a general election — attacking rivals so Mrs. Clinton can stay positive much of the time.
Yet as the Clinton campaign has struggled over the last six weeks, Mr. Clinton has at times been part of the problem. His remark last month that he had opposed the Iraq war “from the beginning” — a statement at variance with his earlier comments — fueled unwelcome stories about Clintonian parsing, especially since Mrs. Clinton was already under fire for straddling the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
More generally, his higher profile in the campaign is again focusing attention on his mixed history in office, encompassing his skills as a campaigner and the economic boom of the 1990s but also his personal indiscretions and the hostility and derision aimed at him and his wife by much of the Republican Party.
Robert Shrum, a Democratic consultant who was senior strategist to John Kerry in 2004 and has worked with Mr. Clinton in the past, said that Mr. Clinton was strategically brilliant, but undisciplined and prone to dominate the spotlight.
“He’s got great strengths, but he’s also a spontaneous person — he says what moves him at the moment,” Mr. Shrum said. “You’re going to get some big downsides, I guess, but some big upsides too. The biggest danger for her is that he reinforces this sense of back to the future. People don’t want to go back to the future, they want to go forward to the future.”
More than anything, Mr. Clinton is increasingly angry with the news media over what he sees as overly critical coverage of Mrs. Clinton and kinder treatment of Mr. Obama, advisers said.
They say he allowed that frustration to spill over on “The Charlie Rose Show” on Friday night, when he criticized the news media as forgoing tough scrutiny of Mr. Obama. The advisers said he also believed that the Obama camp was persuading the reporters to focus on gaffes by his wife and her campaign, like the recent Clinton campaign statement that Mr. Obama harbored presidential ambitions even in kindergarten, and a campaign official’s remark last week about Mr. Obama’s past drug use.
Mr. Clinton’s role in his wife’s campaign has grown in intensity because of several factors, advisers said. They include his belief that victory or defeat in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary could have a slingshot effect on her performance in other states; and a competitive zeal that has not been this electrified since his bid for the presidency in 1992, advisers said.
“He’s going on full cylinders right now,” Mr. Penn said in an interview on Sunday. “He knows that campaigns have their ups and downs, and I think he’s fundamentally optimistic about the outcome.”
From now until the nomination is settled, Mr. Clinton is going to be campaigning, raising money or calling supporters and high-profile holdouts every day, advisers said.
He is concentrating on states that vote first. He is to campaign in South Carolina on Monday and return to Iowa on Tuesday with the former basketball star Magic Johnson. Mr. Clinton’s staff is also hiring a traveling press secretary for his campaign trips — a person who will, Mrs. Clinton’s advisers say, help keep him on message, among other things.
Some advisers and supporters of Mrs. Clinton are torn about her husband’s role. They say that Mr. Clinton, for all his political gifts, has been living in a rarefied, postpresidential bubble for the last seven years, and has not had to deal as much with an aggressive news media and with other Democrats ripping into his wife — and himself.
‘A little rusty at execution’
These advisers expressed concern, for instance, about Mr. Clinton’s performance on “Charlie Rose” and his insistence that he was against the Iraq war from the start. While some Clinton aides said that Mr. Clinton had said in 2005 and 2006 that he was against the war early on, they conceded that, with his wife now a candidate, his words faced new scrutiny, and that his re-entry to high-stakes personal campaigning had not been entirely smooth.
“He is brilliant in sizing up the political challenge and giving advice; he is a little rusty at execution, and his impatience and anxiety seems even worse when it comes to Hillary than when he was running himself,” said one longtime senior adviser who worked on both Clintons’ campaigns, and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Clinton draws several hundred people to each of his appearances, and he still generates ovations. At Mrs. Clinton’s event here in Dunlap on Sunday, some of her loudest applause came when she mentioned her husband for the first time. Yet Mr. Clinton’s charisma on the stump is uneven. During his four stops in Iowa last week, campaign aides acknowledged that his presentation was flatter earlier in the day than at his final event at 8 p.m. in Iowa City.
The Clintons still rarely campaign together. Advisers say they double the output when they travel solo, but concerns also abide about Mr. Clinton’s drawing attention away from his wife when they appear together. They are expected to team up in the final days in Iowa and New Hampshire; until then, their daughter Chelsea and Mrs. Clinton’s mother are expected to play a higher-profile role on the trail.
Inside the campaign, meanwhile, Mr. Clinton’s frustrations are being absorbed by a team of people who are long familiar with them. Mr. Penn and the campaign’s advertising chief, Mandy Grunwald, both worked on his presidential bids, and Mrs. Clinton thinks of her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, almost as an adopted daughter.
Democrats close to Mr. Clinton say that while he has been anxious, they cannot imagine he would ever try to have Mr. Penn or Ms. Solis Doyle fired or demoted; rather, he is concerned that advice to Mrs. Clinton be fully debated.
“The president and Penn have been very close for over 10 years,” Mr. Shrum said. “I believe the two of them together have been the strategic drivers of the campaign, and one thing I think is ridiculous is the notion that he’s all unhappy with the campaign and its strategic direction, because I believe that he helped set it.”