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Bill Clinton defends wife's experience

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

He was wonky, folksy and occasionally self-deprecating. And though Bill Clinton never alluded to his wife's defeat in Thursday's Iowa caucuses, he said he was baffled by the way her years of public service had been perceived as a liability.

Still, the former president said Sunday he believed that his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, demonstrated in Saturday night's Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire that she was the best candidate. He portrayed her performance, which drew mixed reviews, as a victory.

"It was the first real debate we've have had in this election," a slightly hoarse Clinton told an afternoon crowd that filled a North Conway gymnasium.

"I went through a dozen," he said, "where I felt a false dichotomy was set up between experience and change."

Clinton seemed more relaxed than when he stood on a Des Moines stage with his wife last week as she conceded losing in Iowa, finishing behind Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Standing in front of a banner that read "Working for Change, Working for You," Clinton said that having extensive Washington experience didn't hurt only his wife.

"I watched two of the finest members of the Senate, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, eliminated in Iowa apparently because they had done so much work as senators," Clinton said. Biden, he added, was "the only person running whose foreign policy experience was equal or maybe a little beyond Hillary's."

Clinton used his three crowded appearances Sunday in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to gently zing Edwards and Obama, neither of whom, he said, have a record of accomplishment that can match his wife's.

But mostly he talked about his wife and goals for her presidency: restoring America's standing in the world, getting out of Iraq, eliminating tax cuts for the richest Americans, providing healthcare for the uninsured, signing onto the international effort to reduce global warming, and universal pre-kindergarten education, among others.

And he also found time to talk about himself.

Crowds were enthusiastic and sympathetic. They seemed to especially like his description of the presidency.

"Think of what it's like to be president," Clinton said. "I mean, they play a song every time I walked into the room. Man, was I lost for three weeks after I left the White House. I never knew where I was. They stop traffic for you. You live in the best public housing. Your airplane is so cool they make movies about it."

Clinton took half a dozen questions at the end of his appearances. Most were about healthcare, the war and other weighty issues. In a small theater inside Berlin's City Hall, one woman asked about campaign promises versus reality.

"All the candidates are promising us the world," she said. "Realistically, what percentage of those problems can we expect to have fixed in four years?"

"Glad you asked," replied Clinton, who reported that in 1995, more than two years into his first term, a presidential expert told him that he'd already kept a higher percentage of promises than any other modern president. (He didn't say which ones.)

Another asked what, exactly, he would do as "first gentleman."

"In general, I will do whatever I can do to help her," he said.

Though some pundits question how much of a political asset Bill Clinton may be when so many voters seem intoxicated by the idea of change, Tina Demers, a 38-year-old Berlin resident who works in special education, wasn't worried.

"I think he can help her here," she said. "It's not about him anymore. It's her time now."

In North Conway, Sandy Poor, 57, an unemployed healthcare consultant who is trying to decide between Sen. Clinton and Obama, said she thought Bill Clinton was a big asset for his wife. "My life was better when he was president," she said.

She was exactly the kind of voter Clinton had in mind when he said at the end of his speech: "Only two things count about public service. Are people better off when you quit than when you started? And No. 2, do our children have a better future? The rest of it's all smoke and mirrors."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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