Bill Clinton plunges into White House campaign

Times Staff Writer

Bill Clinton plunged back into the presidential campaign fray Monday in the role of doting spouse, telling thousands of Democratic supporters here that his wife is better qualified to be president than he was when he first ran for the job.

“I’d be here tonight if she asked me, even if we weren’t married,” he said.

Introducing Hillary Clinton at the state fairgrounds, the ex-president, who has stayed largely outside public view in the early phase of the campaign, sought to dispel perceptions that his wife is a tough person to like.


He stood behind her as the couple were introduced to the crowd, his hands resting affectionately on her shoulders. Clinton described his wife as “by a long stretch the best qualified non-incumbent I have ever had a chance to vote for in my entire life.”

After his introductory speech, he hugged her warmly, handed off the microphone, then sat and watched as the Democratic front-runner called for universal healthcare and an energy policy that eschews foreign oil.

She also made plain that her husband, immensely popular among Democrats, would remain an influential advisor.

Closing her half-hour speech, she said: “I will have some good help along the way.”

Campaign organizers estimated the crowd at 7,000. People waited in line for hours to hear the Clintons, who arrived nearly an hour late. Sitting on hay bales and risers, some members of the audience sported buttons criticizing President Bush (“Bush Bin Lyin’ ”) and touting potential “First Gentleman” Bill Clinton.

“It’s exciting! I always loved the man,” said Bill Troutfetter, 66, of Des Moines, a retired truck driver. “With him and her together, it’s a solid situation. There’s a lot of knowledge.”

The Clintons are to spend the next two days campaigning together in Iowa, whose January caucuses are the first major test for presidential candidates.

They are to visit the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, parades and July 4th celebrations with a busload of reporters in tow.

Later in the month, they are to campaign together in New Hampshire, site of the nation’s first primary.

Until this point, Bill Clinton’s role in the campaign has consisted largely of raising money. He has attended more than two dozen fundraising events this year, posing for pictures and taking questions from donors.

But in recent weeks he has surfaced in more public roles -- a development that poses risks.

Rolling out the 42nd president reflects a calculation on the part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign that he can rally Democratic voters without overshadowing his wife -- not an easy thing to pull off.

Bill Clinton is considered a natural campaigner, while his wife is struggling to show a warmer side. A Gallup poll shows her unfavorable rating hovers around 50%.

David Axelrod, a strategist for Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama, said: “I once said in 2000 about Al Gore, it’s hard to shine when you’re standing next to the sun.”

Bill Clinton narrates a video posted on his wife’s campaign website that talks about her work with children and her commitment to public service. And the couple recently appeared in a widely viewed spoof of “The Sopranos” HBO TV series finale, in which they revealed her new campaign theme song, “You and I,” by Celine Dion.

In a Web innovation called “HillCam,” the Clinton campaign will post video of the couple’s Iowa swing.

“He’s a huge asset for the campaign,” said Howard Wolfson, an advisor to Sen. Clinton. “He will tell her story. He will fill in some of the biographical details that people may not know.”

The more public her husband’s role, the more the campaign may remind voters of a controversial theme from the 1992 presidential race -- the Clintons as a “two-for-the-price-of-one” package.

Campaigns aim to look forward, yet Bill Clinton is unavoidably a figure from history, evoking memories good and bad.

“It’s tricky,” said Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist. Trotting out Bill Clinton risks signaling to voters that the election “is about the past,” she said.

But the campaign is betting that the former president’s popularity is worth the risk.

Polls show his approval ratings among Democratic voters at nearly 90%.

At the fairgrounds Monday, the crowd seemed delighted he was back.

Virginia Arnold, 65, of Des Moines, said: “Bill is one of the best presidents we’ve ever had. And it bothers me that a lot of people continue to use the sexual things as an excuse to not look at the good things he did. I don’t see how anyone cannot get excited about a team like that.”