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After attacks, Bill Clinton is reined in

Bill Clinton is dutifully traveling from state to state and small town to small town on behalf of his wife’s presidential candidacy. But the growling and snapping Bill Clinton the nation saw before the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries has been muzzled and leashed.
Image: Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton delivers a speech from the back of a pickup to supporters of his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., in Dallas, Texas, on Tuesday.Tony Gutierrez / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

The long campaign has taken some of the fight out of the Big Dog.

Bill Clinton is dutifully traveling from state to state and small town to small town on behalf of his wife’s presidential candidacy. But the growling and snapping Bill Clinton the nation saw before the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries has been muzzled and leashed. He is being kept as far from the news media as possible to prevent any more of the red-faced, finger-wagging tirades and freelance political commentary that polls say cost Hillary Rodham Clinton a lot of support, particularly among black voters.

So what audiences in places like Lancaster, a working-class town of 33,000 about 30 miles southeast of Columbus, are seeing is a subdued and substantive former president going on at length about Iraq, health care, education, job creation and what he portrays as the multiple sins of the Bush administration. What he lacks in passion he makes up for in sheer volume of words.

In the Lancaster High School gymnasium on Monday, Mr. Clinton spoke for an hour to about 2,000 people. The room could have held 1,000 more, but the rest of the gym was curtained off. Earlier in the day, at a college campus in Chillicothe, he spoke in a gym that was two-thirds empty.

Instead of waxing nostalgic about his years in power or highlighting his own accomplishments, Mr. Clinton now peppers his remarks with phrases like “Hillary wanted me to tell you” and “Hillary has a plan for that.” He is as humble as he is capable of being about his own role.

“You know, I’m a little out of practice at this political stuff,” he said at the beginning of his remarks Monday night. “Every election time I feel like the old horse they drag out and lead around the track one more time.”

Mr. Clinton’s latest, less voluble incarnation was a result of deliberations within the Clinton camp in the last days of the South Carolina primary race, where Mr. Clinton had taken on his most publicly aggressive role to date against Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama.

While Mr. Clinton was drawing good-size crowds in South Carolina and Clinton aides at times felt he had Mr. Obama on the defensive, Mr. Clinton’s campaigning seemed to be backfiring, several advisers concluded. As a result, they decided that in Ohio and Texas he would focus solely on describing his wife’s record as first lady and senator and would share personal anecdotes that might humanize her more.

But his presentations are less than transfixing. The Lancaster crowd, a mix of older residents and students receiving extra credit for attending, was attentive. They cheered when Mr. Clinton promised that if his wife were elected president, she would end the war in Iraq and dismantle the No Child Left Behind legislation (which she voted for in 2002).

But some left before he finished. And some of those who stayed were not overwhelmed.

Keith Crabtree, a 47-year-old airport technician from Lancaster, said after listening to Mr. Clinton that he was still undecided about how he would vote in Tuesday’s primary. “He convinced me more than Obama did,” Mr. Crabtree said. “Obama says what he’s going to do, but he doesn’t say how he’s going to do it or how he’s going to pay for it.”

Mr. Crabtree said he had no doubt that Mr. Clinton was an asset to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. “He knows what it’s like,” he said. “He’s been there.”

But Mr. Crabtree was not certain that four or eight more years of the Clintons in the White House would be good for the country. “Like a lot of people, I’m waiting until the last minute to decide,” he said. “This thing is a lot tighter than anyone expected it to be.”

Shana Blank, 53, a social worker, said Mr. Clinton was a more effective advocate for Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy than she was. “I think he brought a really good message to Lancaster and explained a lot of the issues that I care about,” Ms. Blank said. “He’s probably better at it than she is. But he’s got a lot more practice.”

The reason Mr. Clinton is on such a short leash is obvious from polling data. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, only 22 percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote for Mrs. Clinton because of him, while an equal number said they were less likely to support her because of him. In December, 44 percent said they were more likely to vote for her because of him, while only 7 percent said they were less likely.

Mr. Clinton’s favorability numbers have fallen, as well. Last summer, 51 percent of poll respondents said they had a favorable view of Mr. Clinton, while 32 percent said their opinion was unfavorable. By early this month, the numbers were 46 to 39.

It was not hard to find low opinions of Mr. Clinton in Lancaster among those who stayed away from the rally. Tom Mertz, who runs an insurance office, said: “If I was advising her, I’d get him out of there. He’s not done her any good. He threw his mouth in gear before his brain.”

Mr. Mertz, who is 77 and usually votes Republican, added, “He basically was a popular president, even if some of the things he did were not quite kosher. But he weathered that storm, I guess.”

Clare Walker, 48, who runs a family-owned shoe store up the block, called herself a political independent who has not decided how she will vote in the primary. She said she thought Mr. Clinton was a liability and should not be out campaigning for Mrs. Clinton. “It all has to do with Monica,” she said, referring to Mr. Clinton’s affair with a White House intern that led to his impeachment. “That was it for me.”

An equally troublesome matter, Ms. Walker said, was a $5 million loan Mrs. Clinton made to her campaign to keep it afloat before the coast-to-coast nominating contests on Feb. 5.

“Where did that come from?” she asked. “A lot of people in this area who thought she was for the working middle class, and the poor are wondering about that. That’s a lot of money. That really hurt her in this area.”

“That $5 million came out of nowhere,” Ms. Walker added. “I think even more than her husband that will cause her to lose. The people here are poor, but they’re not stupid.”

Patrick Healy contributed reporting from New York.