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Bill Clinton as bad cop

Advisers to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton say they have concluded that Bill Clinton’s aggressive politicking against Senator Barack Obama is resonating with voters, and they intend to keep him on the campaign trail in a major role after the South Carolina primary.
Image: Bill Clinton campaigns in Barnwell, South Carolina
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton conducts a town hall meeting on behalf of his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful New York Senator Hillary Clinton in Barnwell, South Carolina, on Thursday. Erik S. Lesser / EPA
/ Source: The New York Times

Advisers to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton say they have concluded that Bill Clinton’s aggressive politicking against Senator Barack Obama is resonating with voters, and they intend to keep him on the campaign trail in a major role after the South Carolina primary.

The benefits of having Mr. Clinton challenge Mr. Obama so forcefully, over Iraq and Mr. Obama’s record and statements, they say, are worth the trade-offs of potentially overshadowing Mrs. Clinton at times, undermining his reputation as a statesman and raising the question among voters about whether they are putting him in the White House as much as her.

After three weeks of nearly nonstop campaigning, set off by Mrs. Clinton’s third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Clinton has shown as much ability as his wife — or even more — to stir public and news media skepticism about Mr. Obama’s position on Iraq and his message of nonpartisan leadership, Clinton advisers say.

Bill as bad cop
Mr. Clinton is deliberately trying to play bad cop against Mr. Obama, campaign officials say, and is keenly aware that a flash of anger or annoyance will draw even more media and public attention to his arguments. He will continue campaigning full-time for Mrs. Clinton after South Carolina in states with primaries on Feb. 5 where he is especially popular, like Arkansas, California and New York, they say.

They also see benefits in Mr. Clinton’s drawing the ire of the Obama camp, predicting that there will be a voter backlash against Mr. Obama if the former president looks like a victim in the cut-and-thrust of the race.

“He’s the most popular Democrat in the country; he is the most successful president in recent memory, and attacks on him by Senator Obama and his surrogates will be rejected by voters,” said Howard Wolfson, a Clinton spokesman.

The Clintons have come full circle: They are truly two-for-the-price-of-one in this presidential race. Mr. Clinton used that phrase when he first ran in 1992, only to back off after voters raised eyebrows, but now the Clintons are all but openly running together as a power couple ready to take office in 2009. Mrs. Clinton views him as a full partner, her advisers say, relying on him over the last few weeks to salvage and steer her campaign.

Yet some Democrats and political analysts see downsides in Mr. Clinton’s outsize role. Given his stature, the former president is potentially sowing deep divisions within a party that until now has been remarkably enthusiastic and unified about the 2008 election. He dispensed this week with any pretense that he was above it all.

“Bill Clinton seems to not be in his traditional mode,” said Jack Bass, an authority on Southern politics at the College of Charleston, who has observed Mr. Clinton for more than 30 years. “I’ve just never seen these negative emotions in public before. I know he has a temper, but this confrontational attitude with journalists, and the anger itself, is surprising to me.”

Hillary as good cop
Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, has stuck largely to the role of good cop this week, sounding more like a general election candidate as she attacked President Bush over the economy and mostly ignored Mr. Obama. In a speech on the economy on Thursday, she repeatedly attacked Mr. Bush but barely referred to her rival.

President Bush, she said, “has stayed at a comfortable cruising altitude, well above the realities of people’s lives, delegating responsibility to his advisers, hoping the buck would stop somewhere else.”

Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, has treaded onto far more combustible ground, like race. He says that people in his audiences “never” raise race, but several have. At a forum Wednesday in Kingstree, for example, a black pastor declared, “Black America is voting for Mr. Obama because he is black.” Mr. Clinton said he hoped that, for the country’s sake, that would not be the case. He also said that he thought no one would be voting against Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton on the base of race or sex.

And yet earlier in the day, in Charleston, he suggested that his wife might lose the primary because of race. “They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender,” Mr. Clinton said, “and that’s why people tell me that Hillary doesn’t have a chance to win here.”

It was not clear if Mr. Clinton was lowering expectations for her in South Carolina, but the polls have done that. Most show her losing the black vote overwhelmingly to Mr. Obama; the question for Mrs. Clinton will be the degree to which white voters turn out and the degree to which they vote for John Edwards.

'Inaccurate' attacks
David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, said in an interview Thursday that the Clintons were “throwing everything into winning South Carolina,” though he added that he was disturbed by “inaccurate” attacks on Mr. Obama. Mr. Plouffe cited a Clinton radio advertisement in South Carolina that suggested Mr. Obama liked Republican Party ideas in the 1990s. (The commercial stopped running Thursday; officials said it had been meant only for a 24-hour run.)

“This is not just a spouse or an average surrogate,” Mr. Plouffe said. “He’s a former president, and I think that comes with a little higher responsibility about what he says and how he says it.”

James Carville, Mr. Clinton’s political strategist in 1992, said that the jousting between the two camps had hardly turned toxic, and that the stakes of this election were too high to have a milquetoast campaign.

“This is not Williams College students electing a commencement speaker. This is a huge deal,” Mr. Carville said. “Does the president risk going overboard? Sure. But Obama runs a risk of being wussified.”

Several friends and donors to the Clintons say that the idea of Mr. Clinton’s going overboard is hard to gauge because he is so enmeshed in the campaign. Both of them have said that he may act as a troubleshooter in foreign and domestic policy. The two sometimes use terms like “they” and “we” to describe the Clinton candidacy.

On Thursday, it was Mr. Clinton’s voice that appeared in a new radio advertisement here arguing for another Clinton presidency.

Katharine Q. Seelye contributed reporting from Walterboro, S.C.