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Bill Clinton settles into new campaign role

This small Western hamlet, best known for a bloody race riot involving white and Chinese coal miners in 1885, might not be the first place one would expect to find the former leader of the free world.
Campaign 2008 Wyoming Democrats
Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the Sweetwater County Events Complex, Thursday March 6, 2008 in Rock Springs, Wyo.Andy Carpenean / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

This small Western hamlet, best known for a bloody race riot involving white and Chinese coal miners in 1885, might not be the first place one would expect to find the former leader of the free world.

But here was Bill Clinton in southwest Wyoming, two days before Saturday's Democratic caucuses, telling about 1,000 people how his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, would establish 10 clean-coal technology projects if elected president in November.

"Some environmentalists don't think we ought to be doing anything with coal, but they're wrong," he said Thursday. "Think about it, you could become, maybe, the first totally energy-independent state in the United States."

For a former two-term president, such chatter may sound like fairly mundane stuff. But months into the Democratic nominating contest, he still campaigns vigorously for his wife across the country, still finding the right role for himself in an unprecedented and high-profile experiment in how best to help her.

Her advisers credit him with boosting her support among rural voters, especially men. He also phones through a list of party "superdelegates" almost daily, urging them to back the former first lady. And he has raised considerable cash for her campaign, both at events with the wealthy and in online appeals to smaller donors.

Anticipating the next major primary April 22 in Pennsylvania, the former president was headed to Philadelphia for a meeting with city ward bosses Friday. It was then on to Mississippi, whose primary is Tuesday.

What he does not do _ anymore _ is criticize Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. And he has not appeared onstage with his wife since Super Tuesday, Feb. 5.

Still a beloved figure to many Democratic Party stalwarts, Bill Clinton remains a decidedly mixed blessing for his wife's campaign. While once viewed as an unmitigated asset, his angry tirades against Obama in New Hampshire and later South Carolina overshadowed her message and appear to have caused lasting damage to her candidacy among black voters, a key party constituency.

But campaign aides believe that after months of trial and error, they have finally found a role for the former president that plays to strengths without needlessly reminding voters of the theatrics of his White House years.

The answer: play the traditional political spouse.

"He was the first to acknowledge after South Carolina that he'd failed to anticipate how he'd be held to a different standard than other spouses," said Mike McCurry, who was Bill Clinton's White House spokesman. "Right now, he's in a place he's very comfortable with. But I'm sure he's biting his tongue a lot."

On the trail, the former president travels to so-called "secondary markets" that receive less media coverage, and to rural areas. His speeches now focus on policy and on his wife's strengths, after months where he seemed to talk as much about his own record as he did hers.

It was far different in New Hampshire, where he dismissed Obama's opposition to the Iraq War as a "fairy tale," and in South Carolina, where he lectured reporters on their alleged bias in favor of the Illinois senator. When Obama won there by a landslide, Bill Clinton appeared to marginalize him as just another popular black politician in a heavily black state.

Since then, black voters in state after state have largely abandoned Hillary Clinton, contributing to a string of losses she suffered last month to Obama.

It was a glaring stumble for a man once so popular with blacks that Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison dubbed him the "first black president." Morrison, known for her novels about the lives of black women, endorsed Obama after the South Carolina primary.

Hillary Clinton even offered an apology of sorts for her husband's behavior in South Carolina when she addressed the State of the Black Union conference last month.

"If anyone was offended by anything that was said _ whether it was meant or not, misinterpreted or not _ obviously I regret that," she told Public Broadcasting Service TV and radio broadcaster Tavis Smiley, who hosted the conference in New Orleans.

McCurry, for his part, said the close state of the race and the likely importance of superdelegates to the outcome again has made Bill Clinton an important asset for his wife. Superdelegates are the party and elected officials who automatically attend the Democratic national convention and can support whichever candidate they choose.

"Wooing superdelegates is the best possible way to use him," McCurry said. "The currency and sway a former president brings to that process is pretty substantial. A lot of them have spent time in the Oval Office, probably at his invitation. And his calling them will remind them what a huge responsibility it is to be president of the United States and how we need someone in there who is ready to do the job."

But Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush, said Bill Clinton had badly overshadowed his wife just when she needed to establish her own identity and credentials as a candidate.

"If she loses, his role will be looked back upon as one of the unique surprises of the campaign," Fleischer said. "How can someone so popular with the base of his party hurt his wife so badly? And how did he underestimate the unique power that a former president has, especially one with his strength and sense of drama?"