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Clinton's camp seeks gentler role for Bill

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign team will try to shift former President Bill Clinton back into the sunnier, supportive-spouse role that he played before the Iowa caucuses.
/ Source: The New York Times

Democrats inside and outside the Clinton campaign on Sunday debated and in some cases bemoaned the degree to which former President ’s criticism of Senator last week had inflicted lasting damage on his wife’s presidential candidacy.

“I think his harsh style hurt Senator Clinton — it polarized the campaign and polarized the electorate, and it also made it harder for Senator Clinton’s positive message to break through,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist and pollster who is not affiliated with any of the candidates.

Senator ’s campaign team, seeking to readjust after her lopsided defeat in South Carolina and amid a sense among many Democrats that Mr. Clinton had injected himself clumsily into the race, will try to shift the former president back into the sunnier, supportive-spouse role that he played before Mrs. Clinton’s loss in the Iowa caucuses, Clinton advisers said.

But Democrats said it was not clear whether the effects of Mr. Clinton’s high profile could be brushed away by having him modulate his campaign style. They said Mr. Clinton had upset some of the central themes of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, including her appeal to women and her assertions that her time in the White House during the 1990s amounted to vital experience rather than a link to a presidency defined as much by scandal and partisan divisions as by its successes on fronts like the economy.

Despite Mrs. Clinton’s months-long efforts to build a base of support among women, Clinton advisers said they were concerned that her husband’s recent prominence may have dampened her appeal as a strong female leader. Some advisers said they feared as much after Mr. Obama won 54 percent of the vote from women in South Carolina, including 22 percent of white women and 78 percent of black women, according to polls.

Fears of a 'co-presidency'
Echoing private remarks by some Clinton advisers, Linda L. Fowler, a professor of government at , said in an interview that she believed Mr. Clinton’s attacks on Mr. Obama had hurt Mrs. Clinton.

“Voters don’t like the idea of a co-presidency, and he became so high profile that he made people begin to see this as a possible co-presidency,” Ms. Fowler said. “It’s even more problematic because she’s a woman. It looks like she either needs him to fight the big battles for her, or she can’t keep the big dog on the porch.”

After a week of all-out campaigning by Mr. Clinton in South Carolina, where Mrs. Clinton came in a distant second to Mr. Obama, there is also fresh concern among some advisers that Mr. Clinton’s visibility has dented her argument that she has the best experience for the job.

These advisers expressed concern that the specter of a co-candidacy and co-presidency could bring back elements of the Clinton history that many Democrats would just as soon leave behind.

Representative of New York, a leading supporter of Mrs. Clinton, said on Sunday that Mr. Clinton was going to pull back. “He’s got to,” Mr. Rangel said. “The focus has got to get back on Hillary. For all that he cares about his wife, this has to be her election to win, and it’s become too much about his role.”

Yet some advisers expressed concern that Mr. Clinton might prove difficult to rein in, citing the latest furor over the weekend after he compared Mr. Obama’s victories to ’s in 1984 and 1988 on Saturday, though Mr. Jackson did not approach the wide margin of Mr. Obama’s win.

Advisers said Mr. Clinton’s remark was an off-the-cuff reference, but it was debated on the Sunday news shows and in the blogosphere as a possible effort by the Clinton camp to diminish Mr. Obama’s success in South Carolina as simply the result of a black candidate drawing support from a heavily black electorate.

Obama decries race reference
Mr. Obama, asked about the remark on the ABC program “This Week With ,” mostly sought to praise Mr. Jackson — a supporter of his — while decrying the injection of race into the campaign.

“Jesse Jackson ran historic races in 1984 and 1988, and there’s no doubt that that set a precedent for African-Americans running for the highest office in the land,” Mr. Obama said. “I think people want change. I think they want to get beyond some of the racial politics that, you know, has been so dominant in the past.”

Mr. Clinton’s ability to be a distraction was evident on Sunday as reporters repeatedly asked Mrs. Clinton about her husband’s role in the campaign and his comments about Mr. Jackson, which she characterized as benign.

“I think everyone who knows Bill knows that he’s both a great student of politics and history, but he’s also somebody who brought our country together,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters in Memphis.

Clinton advisers said that Mr. Clinton would continue to campaign nearly full time for his wife in the days leading up to the Feb. 5 primaries and caucuses in 22 states, yet they added that he would take a more positive tone.

They said his role would be akin to his effort before the Iowa caucuses, when he highlighted Mrs. Clinton’s record and her policy ideas, and was used in part to build huge crowds on college campuses rather than attack Mr. Obama. (It was after her third-place finish in Iowa that Mr. Clinton turned much more aggressive.) The campaign announced Sunday night that Mr. Clinton would speak on Tuesday at a college in New Jersey, which has a Feb. 5 primary.

“Bill Clinton is going to continue to campaign on behalf of his wife and tell her story and make his case about why she should be president,” said , Mrs. Clinton’s communications director.

Mr. Wolfson said the campaign would turn its focus to the Florida primary, which is Tuesday, although that primary is considered little more than a beauty contest.

And Mrs. Clinton will not campaign in Florida — honoring a pledge that the Democratic candidates took after the state moved up its primary date against the national party’s wishes — though her campaign said she would hold an event in Florida on Tuesday night as the primary results come in.

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.