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A convention comeuppance for Bill Clinton

Image: Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton speaks to panelists at the International Leaders Forum at the Stage Theater in Denver on Tuesday. Ken Papaleo / The Rocky Mountain News via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Comeback Kid is having a convention comeuppance.

Bill Clinton was supposed to beam at the side of his wife at the Democratic convention as she was crowned their party's presidential nominee. Instead, he will have reason to wince as their upstart rival, Barack Obama, is coronated.

"Must be killing him," Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen told The Associated Press.

The 42nd president's campaign performance this year was erratic: He helped drive voters his wife's way, but his occasional outbursts at critics and reporters tarnished his image as a statesman.

He has complicated the task of reconciliation with comments early on that were critical of Obama, and with tepid endorsements since.

Trying not to hog Obama's spotlight
Now he is playing second fiddle to his wife, who is second fiddle to her one-time opponent — in part because of her husband's undisciplined campaigning through the primary. At the same time, he is trying not to hog Obama's spotlight.

On Tuesday, his first full day here, Clinton did what comes hardest: He kept a low profile and avoided publicly wading into political waters still roiled by tensions between the Obama and Clinton camps.

Speaking before a gathering on international affairs, Clinton gave a subdued address on democracy and global warming, referring to the convention and the campaign only in broad strokes. After about 10 minutes of remarks, he walked off stage and left the building to work on his wife's Tuesday night convention address and his own Wednesday night speech.

Clinton, known for his surgical grasp of political minutiae, offered no campaign post-mortem and dispensed no advice to Obama.

Instead, he said simply: "This was an endlessly fascinating process already, and it's still got some twists and turns between now and November."

Clinton said the Democratic campaign will go down in history not only for the closeness of the race, but for the explosion of small campaign donations and the proliferation of sources of political information

"But underneath that and in the background, there is also a different story, which we don't want to unearth much on the convention floor because it's not really what we're trying to do but which you should be mindful of," Clinton said. The real issue, he said, is whether democracies around the world can deliver on critical challenges when the dust settles after elections.

Speech skirts political drama
His above-the-fray speech skirted the political drama simmering a half-mile away at the Democratic convention. Whom would the Clinton delegates vote for in a roll call? Would the Clinton loyalists channel their energy to Obama?

And what would Clinton himself say in his prime-time address on Wednesday?

He drew huge crowds at his wife's rallies, probably helping her carry some close counties. Will he do the same for Obama?

During the primary race, the former president said Obama's opposition to the Iraq war was a "fairy tale" and raised questions about whether the first-term Illinois senator had the experience to lead the country. When he compared Obama's win in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson's victories there in the 1980s, he angered some black leaders who felt Clinton was dismissing Obama's historic bid.

And Clinton fumed in response that it was Obama's campaign that "played the race card on me."

He remains frustrated that his policy achievements haven't been given enough credit by Obama, aides said, although Obama's recent acknowledgements about the prosperity during the 1990s were helping mend the rift.

Mindful of Obama's moment in the sun, Clinton went underground after his morning address on democracy — an address attended by hundreds of people, but where there were also dozens of empty seats. He had no other public appearances Tuesday.