He’s scrapping with reporters. Pushing his wife’s candidacy. Lashing out at her top rival in the Democratic presidential race.
Former President Clinton’s recent aggressive tactics in the 2008 campaign have propelled him squarely to center stage -- to the dismay of some prominent Democrats who fear he may be damaging the party’s prospects for November.
The vocal role he is carving out also may be a preview, should Hillary Rodham Clinton win in the fall, of how the White House would operate under the unprecedented scenario of a president being married to an ex-president.
Bill Clinton is using both the megaphone he commands and his popularity among Democrats to try to help wrest a victory for his wife in Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, a state where polls show she lags behind Barack Obama.
While touting his wife’s credentials, the former president has tried to redefine Obama as a more calculating politician than voters might suspect. And he makes plain he is nursing grievances about how the campaign has unfolded.
Talking to a TV reporter in Charleston, S.C., the other day, Clinton accused the Obama campaign of orchestrating a “hit job” on him. He did not spell out what that meant. But the comment was the latest in a series of criticisms he has lobbed at the Illinois senator.
He clearly was peeved by Obama’s comments about President Reagan. In a newspaper interview last week in Nevada, Obama opined that Reagan had changed the nation’s “trajectory” more than Clinton or President Nixon had.
Clinton took that as an affront. “I thought we challenged the conventional wisdom in the ‘90s,” Clinton told reporters at a restaurant here.
It’s not clear that his approach is working. Increasingly, Democratic civic leaders and political figures are saying the sight of the former two-term president immersed in a partisan scrum leaves them unnerved.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), an influential African American, said he talked by telephone with Clinton on Wednesday night and warned that his behavior could scare off young, independent-minded voters that the party needed in the general election.
Clyburn said that in their 10-minute conversation, he heard no guarantees Clinton would stop.
“I told him I was concerned whether this nomination would be worth having if we don’t put this behind us,” said Clyburn, who has remained neutral in the primary race.
Younger voters, he added, might “walk away from our nominee -- whoever that might be -- because they may get disenchanted with the whole process.”
Others once closely associated with Clinton have taken exception to some of his assertions about Obama. Consider the dust-up over Reagan.
Robert B. Reich, a longtime friend who served as Labor secretary in Clinton’s administration, wrote in a blog posting Thursday: “For years, Bill Clinton and many other leading Democrats have made precisely the same point -- that starting in the Reagan administration, Republicans put forth a range of new ideas while the Democrats sat on their hands.”
In the short run, the Obama campaign is hoping for a backlash. Michelle Obama, the candidate’s wife, sent out a fundraising solicitation Thursday that cited Clinton’s criticisms as a reason to contribute to her husband.
‘What we didn’t expect’
Asking for donations of $50, she wrote: “In the past week or two, another candidate’s spouse has been getting an awful lot of attention. . . . What we didn’t expect, at least not from our fellow Democrats, are the win-at-all-costs tactics we’ve seen recently. We didn’t expect misleading accusations that willfully distort Barack’s record.”
During most of the year that his wife has been campaigning for the presidency, Clinton was more subdued. Typically, he would vouch for her credentials and praise all the candidates in the field.
That changed when Obama started gaining traction -- and especially after he won the Iowa caucuses this month.
The former president began arguing that the news media had not properly vetted Obama. And he seemed resentful of how Obama was portrayed, as compared with his wife.
He told the audience in Charleston before the Iowa vote: “I watched her being called dishonest, phony and plastic.”
In a reference to Obama, he added: “One candidate with four pollsters said she is poll-driven; she only had one.”
Internally, the Clinton campaign has debated the best way to deploy the former president.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who has traveled with Sen. Clinton’s campaign, said at one point he believed the former president should be “on the bench” to ensure he did not overshadow his wife.
But Weiner said he had since changed his mind.
“If you buy the premise that there hasn’t really been a vetting of Barack Obama, and that what we thought would be bigger issues have not really been, who is a better messenger to bring that kind of attention to issues than Bill Clinton?” Weiner asked.
A low-key role?
Some Clinton supporters also seem pleased with the former president’s methods.
After Sen. Clinton made a recent campaign stop in New Jersey, Nelson Rodriguez said he believed the ex-president was perfectly within bounds in advocating for his wife and, at times, against Obama.
“There is a little bickering, but they are rivals,” said Rodriguez, 25, who runs a nonprofit teen center. The campaign, he added, “is a little like a sport, so you expect them to go at it.”
When they are asked what Bill Clinton would do in a Hillary Clinton White House, the couple describe a low-key role. He would travel the world to shore up U.S. alliances. He would offer private counsel. He would take no formal staff nor -- in keeping with anti-nepotism laws -- a Cabinet post.
Many wonder whether this role would require more self-restraint than Bill Clinton can muster.
Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, campaigned for Clinton in 1992 and again in ’96. He says his office is jammed with pictures of the former president.
But Harpootlian, who backs Obama, voiced disappointment over Clinton’s actions of late.
“This raises a huge question,” he said. “Are we going to have a co-presidency?”
Times staff writer James Rainey contributed to this report.