Bill Clinton has always had a flair for political drama. Now it looks like his just-in-time recovery from heart surgery, allowing him to campaign for John Kerry in the election’s closing days, may provide a jolt of excitement that any candidate would covet.
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile says she started getting phone calls and e-mail as soon as word got out about Clinton’s planned appearance Monday with Kerry in Philadelphia, with messages like: “He’s back! The Comeback Kid!”
She predicts “a great, electrifying last week of the campaign.”
That’s just dreaming, Republicans say, suggesting that Kerry will suffer from the comparison when he stands alongside the more charismatic Clinton, and that memories of Monica Lewinsky may serve to fire up GOP voters.
“He can remind people of everything that John Kerry is not: loquacious, empathetic, politically adroit,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Clinton, who hopes to make a number of appearances on Kerry’s behalf if his stamina holds up, is still a controversial figure to many Americans but his appeal is strong among core Democrats.
In a tight election where little things can be hugely important, Kerry’s team hopes Clinton will help boost turnout, especially among blacks. The hope also is that Clinton will remind all Americans of better economic times under a Democratic president and raise a late infusion of cash for the cause.
Doug Schoen, who served as Clinton’s presidential pollster, said anger at the impeached former president over the Lewinsky affair has dissipated over the years, making his arrival on the campaign scene “less likely to mobilize anti-Clinton sentiment than it is to mobilize Democratic constituencies like African-Americans, who’ve been lagging in their enthusiasm for John Kerry.”
Clinton, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery on Sept. 6, regularly talks with Kerry and offers campaign advice. He also will be making TV appearances and taping a phone message to voters and may record radio ads.
The key question for both sides is how much of Clinton’s appeal can rub off on another politician.
Democrats get almost misty-eyed about the magic that Clinton is supposed to have worked for John Street, who was in a hard-fought Philadelphia mayoral race in 1999 when Clinton came in to campaign for him at the 11th hour at LaSalle University.
“I was at that LaSalle rally and I’ve never seen anything like the transformation in the public opinion and the spirit about this campaign that Bill Clinton was able to produce,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell recalled this week on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”
Republicans, by way of counterpoint, invoke former Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler. He was in a Senate runoff race with Republican challenger Paul Coverdell in Georgia in 1992, and ended up losing despite President-elect Clinton’s efforts on his behalf.
“There are plenty of examples where politicians have tried to lend their popularity without great success,” said Ayres.
Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel says it’s only natural that both candidates are dispatching top surrogates in the campaign’s final days but predicts that “in the end, voters will make their decisions based upon the differences between President Bush and Senator Kerry.”
Both sides agree that Clinton’s best chance of helping Kerry is among blacks, with whom Bush has been improving his dismal standing from four years ago when he got just 9 percent.
A recent survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on black issues, had Kerry leading Bush among black Americans 69 percent to 18 percent. In a similar poll before the 2000 election, Gore led Bush 74 percent to 9 percent.
Still, all the talk about Clinton’s allure with black voters may be overstated. His share of the black vote — 83 percent in 1992 and 84 percent in 1996 — was less than that of every other Democratic presidential contender since John F. Kennedy.
Further, Republican pollster Keith Appell says that for every constituency that Clinton might motivate to support Kerry, there could be an opposite effect among other voters.
“He energizes both bases and in a mobilization election, where turnout tells the tale, he’s going to help both sides,” Appell said.
Brazile, who served as Gore’s campaign manager in 2000, scoffs at the notion that Clinton could end up boosting GOP turnout. Republicans, she said, “have had more red meat thrown at them in the last six months. They don’t need anything to motivate them.”
She said Clinton was no longer the divisive symbol that he was when Gore kept him at arms-length during the 2000 campaign.
“It was a different political season,” she said.