Bill Clinton’s political muscle memory took him down a well-worn path Monday in New Hampshire: the rally in Nashua, the lunchtime mingle in Manchester and the afternoon town hall in Exeter.
Like the snow flurries on one of the coldest days of winter so far, Clinton’s Arkansas twang was so familiar in the hamlets of the Granite State that it seemed to signal that the time to pick a president is near again.
“All Americans should have the right to meet at least one president in a lifetime,” Clinton told one patron at the Puritan Backroom restaurant in Manchester between campaign events. “In New Hampshire, your odds go way up!”
It’s been 20 years since Clinton, the 69-year-old former president, appeared on the ballot here. The self-styled “comeback kid,” whose second-place finish in the 1992 primary helped propel him to the White House, was dispatched to the state to begin making a public case for the second White House bid of his wife, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, just a month before the first ballots are cast.
For her campaign, Bill Clinton’s presence both provides a boost and carries a risk. He is as popular as ever with Democrats and even some swing voters, but he’s also susceptible to the headline-grabbing, message-scuttling unpredictability that vexed his wife’s campaign eight years ago.
With just four weeks until the first nominating contest in Iowa, the Clinton camp is eager to snuff out an unexpectedly strong challenge from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders before he can do to her what she did to Barack Obama in 2008 — extend a nomination fight that might well have ended in New Hampshire.
Deploying the former president was part of a one-two punch for the Clinton campaign, as the former secretary of State began a multi-city tour in Iowa.
“If I get off to a good start here in Iowa, we’re halfway home,” she said at a stop in Davenport.
Unlike in 2008, Bill Clinton was dispatched to the campaign trail this year from a position of strength. Eight years ago, the day after Obama’s shocking victory in the Iowa caucuses, Clinton ramped up his campaigning on his wife’s behalf in New Hampshire. His schedule would soon rival that of many of the candidates, packing in big crowds at school gymnasiums and small ones at watering holes.
In the days before the first primary, he infamously struck at what he viewed as then-Sen. Obama’s muddled record on the Iraq war, labeling Obama’s portrayal of himself as a staunch foe to the conflict a “fairy tale.” Weeks later, on the day of the South Carolina primary, the former president dismissed Obama’s expected victory by noting that Jesse Jackson, another African American candidate, carried the state in 1988.
Still, Clinton provided value to his wife as the primary season slogged on in 2008, holding event after event in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania that Hillary Clinton would ultimately win to extend the nomination battle.
On Monday, he exhibited more discipline, despite multiple attempts by reporters to lure him off message by asking about the Republican field.
Asked about the repeated assertions by Republican front-runner Donald Trump that Clinton’s history of sexual indiscretions was “fair game” in the campaign, he demurred.
“There’s always a temptation to take the election away from people,” he said of voters. “I’m just going to give it to them.”
And while others might discount the rhetoric from some Republicans as simply campaign-year appeals to the party’s extremes, Clinton warned that history has shown “most everybody actually tries to do what they say they’re going to do.”
“It’s kind of scary this year,” he said. “They are telling you what they believe. And so you’ve got to take them seriously.”
But mainly he made a case for his wife, calling her a “change-maker” throughout her life, both in and out of elected office.
He cited a program she helped launch as Arkansas first lady that lifted the state from the bottom of national education ratings — something that ended up being one of his main talking points in 1992.
“I used it in speeches here to try to talk you into voting for me, but she did that,” he said in Exeter.
For her part, Clinton spoke of her husband’s economic record as president as if it were shared.
“We lifted more people out of poverty in those eight years than in any other recent time in American history,” she said. “And we ended up with a balanced budget and a surplus.”
As comfortable as he was and as familiar as he seemed shaking every hand, posing for every picture during his lunchtime visit to Manchester, it’s unclear how voters here — many of whom never even had a chance to vote for him — will factor Bill Clinton’s testimony into their decision.
Jennifer Morriss, an independent voter, called Trump’s attacks on Bill Clinton’s past “just not fair.” But she was more concerned with what she said was Hillary Clinton’s baggage, which is why she would support Sanders.
Still, she thought the former president could help sway voters toward his wife.
“Have you ever been in the room with him?” she asked. “He has a way, and I know he’s going to bring that for her.”
Josephine Hamilton Perry, a retired teacher from Chicago who drove to Iowa for Monday’s event, said she hoped Hillary Clinton didn’t get eclipsed by her husband.
“Hillary is her own person,” said Perry, 68. “She needs to step out there even more.”
Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Davenport, Iowa, contributed to this report.