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The Comeback Kid comes back

Bill Clinton is in familiar territory in recent campaign stops, offering his wife the same nickname he adopted in 1992, when he revived his own fledgling candidacy.
/ Source: National Journal

The room was packed, sweltering and charged with the defiant energy of 2,000 people ready to fight for a woman on the ropes.

A mere two days before the Virginia primary contest, expectations were fading by the hour that the state's upcoming vote would be anything but a rout for . But to hear her husband tell it at a rally in rural Abingdon, she was poised for a comeback. After all, Bill Clinton said, she has always fought the best when the referees were about to call her down for the count.

"She came back and won in New Hampshire when everybody was dancing on her grave," said the former president, whose resolute grin was rewarded with an eruption of deafening cheers.

Once considered an unbeatable Goliath, Hillary Clinton is indeed fighting for her political life. ’s sweep of the Potomac Primary -- days after Bill Clinton's sunny predictions in Abingdon -- has made March 4 an impending Judgment Day for his wife's campaign as she trails her opponent in delegates needed for the Democratic nomination.

But rather than showing the red-faced frustration he displayed in South Carolina, the Comeback Kid seems more than happy to paint his wife as an underdog under attack. He has described her as an outspent dark horse when he speaks to gritty blue-collar workers in Baltimore, small-town moms in Ohio and battle-hardened Democrats in West Texas. He beams when he describes her Super Tuesday wins in Massachusetts, where "the whole political establishment was against her," and California, where her opponent had "all the celebrity and all the glitz."

And he is anything but reluctant to acknowledge that the campaign ran out of money before being buoyed by a massive online fundraising effort. The influx of cash came not from establishment fundraisers, he told supporters in the former steel town of Dundalk, Md., but from "working people like you, people without a lot of money."

Clinton claims the toughness of this race proves his wife's resilience and dogged determination in the face of attack.

"Any other candidate would have been blown away by the things that she's been through, the things that have been said," he said in Wisconsin last week. The fact that she's still standing, he implies, is impressive enough.

Fighting from behind is a familiar (if distant) memory for Bill Clinton, who heard pundits sounding the death knell of his candidacy in 1992 before a second-place showing in New Hampshire catapulted him back into contention. A rash of negative stories -- controversies over the Vietnam draft, executed murderer Ricky Ray Rector and Gennifer Flowers -- nearly derailed his bid before Granite State voters cast the ballots that famously made him the "Comeback Kid."

A decade and a half later, the Clintons have become the chief engineers of a political machine once considered unstoppable. But the gears of that machine slow down when the former president visits rural Virginia or eastern Ohio, for example, where the economic roller coaster of the past two decades has sparked a populist streak. Bill Clinton's strategic value in such places is twofold: He is beloved by many white blue-collar and agricultural workers, and he drums up sympathy for his embattled wife from voters who see themselves as scrappy fighters. These audiences cheer him when he describes her "getting cut up" in the policy skirmishes of the 1990s as a mark of honor rather than a disqualification from participating in a hopeful new era.