Milwaukee In the first major election since he left the Oval Office, former President Bill Clinton is embarking on his most visible return to the political stage and has sent word to Democrats that he is eager to aid the party's battle for control of Congress.
"We can definitely win if our people make a clear and convincing argument to know what we are for," Clinton said in the opening days of a two-month campaign stretch. "That's one of the reasons I try to get out here to help."
Instead of graciously accepting the offer from the legendary campaigner, some Democrats have asked Clinton to keep his political distance.
In Clinton's home state of Arkansas, a Democratic candidate for Senate declined to appear publicly with him late last month. Clinton's former chief of staff, running for Senate in North Carolina, also has made it clear that he wants his old boss nowhere near his race.
Frustrated that the Democratic message is not being heard, partly because Democrats have no clear leader, Clinton is carefully following close races and tending to candidates who seek his help as the party tries to close the gap of six seats in the House and build on a one-seat Senate advantage.
"Even though I can't run for anything, I still go out and do this because I think these decisions are important to us," Clinton said of the fall elections. "Now, I have the luxury of being able to commit candor."
There was no hand-wringing over Clinton's presence in Milwaukee last week or in dozens of places elsewhere in the nation where Democrats are jostling to be penciled onto the former president's calendar. In fact, he had barely started delivering a speech for Rep. Tammy Baldwin when a fan shouted her seal of approval for him from a seat in the back of a downtown ballroom.
"We miss you, Bill!" Susan Winecki, an otherwise restrained hospital chaplain, declared in the highest and most enthusiastic of decibels.
Clinton beamed at that interruption and has basked in standing ovations last week that stretched from New York to California, with stops along the way in Milwaukee and Chicago.
This week, he is scheduled to be in Connecticut and Michigan, and by Election Day, the former president will have logged appearances for at least 75 candidates, starred in advertising spots and headlined rallies in key Democratic bastions.
Far cry from past
It's a stark contrast to his final year in office, when Clinton's campaigning savvy was rarely tapped as Al Gore, the party's standard bearer, tried to distance himself from a president who had been embroiled in scandal.
"Can you imagine what it's like for him to have an election season go by and have him not campaign?" said Margaret Scranton, a political science professor with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who is preparing to teach a class on the Clinton presidency.
Gone is the motorcade and the large retinue that once surrounded him. The band no longer plays "Hail to the Chief," although pianist Ben Sidran said he was tempted to do so when Clinton entered the Marcus Center for Performing Arts Wednesday in Milwaukee.
Instead, Sidran opted for an upbeat rendition of "On Wisconsin," for fear of violating protocol.
The applause was loud and lingering. The speech was statesmanlike. But no matter the warm welcome from loyal fans, the topic that will forever dog Clinton was posed to Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat in a tough race for her third term.
"You don't have any qualms at all about bringing him here, considering the shenanigans in office?" a local reporter asked Baldwin as a television camera rolled.
"I have made no bones about disagreeing and not approving that conduct," Baldwin replied, not breaking her smile. "But this president saw our nation from deficit to surplus, from weak economy to strong economy. He has been a thoughtful spokesperson for the Democratic Party, and I was absolutely thrilled when his office called."
On a tightrope
The exchange illustrates the delicate balance of Clinton's re-emergence in the campaign field this fall. Associates say he is eager to rebuild his legacy, after his historic impeachment, and to remind Americans of his administration's accomplishments on the economy, welfare reform and programs such as the family medical leave act.
He also acutely understands why some Democrats are hesitant to invite him into their hometowns, fearing local Republicans will capitalize on anti-Clinton sentiment.
Illustrations of this were the Senate candidate in Arkansas, Mark Pryor, and even one of his former chiefs of staff, Erskine Bowles, in his Senate race in North Carolina.
"There are places where it does more harm than good," said former press secretary Joe Lockhart, who frequently advises Clinton. "That's a fact of life."
Clinton has devoted a considerable portion of his time in private life to making money.
"I still had to pay the lawyers," he said about legal expenses he blames on Republican hounding.
Clinton also extensively promotes AIDS relief and economic development in Africa, India and elsewhere.
But more than any former president in modern history, Clinton is still deeply engaged and connected to Democratic politics. He talks regularly with those considering a presidential bid in 2004, and he hopes to use his record to criticize President Bush's stewardship of the economy.
In a quip made while raising funds for Sen. Dick Durbin last week, Clinton told a Chicago crowd: "You can't blame the administration and the Republicans for taking us back to deficits, for spending the Social Security surplus and assaulting the environment.
"That's what they promised to do in the last election."
With a grin, he added, "I know something about economics."
While acknowledging concern for how the economy could affect the fall elections, Republicans are dismissive of Clinton's re-emergence.
"Bill Clinton has to understand this is not the Rotary club, and there is no title of past president," a Republican strategist in Washington said. "He's done."
Democrats who frequently talk to Clinton say he is sensitive that his campaigning does not hurt the Democrats' goal of reclaiming control of the House, winning the majority of governor seats and holding on to the Senate.
"He feels like he's the de facto leader of the party, but he knows that when it's about him he loses," said one Democratic strategist who is close to Clinton.
Still in high demand
So Clinton is treading lightly, lending a hand only when asked.
The requests far outweigh the time Clinton has allotted.
Steve Ricchetti, a former deputy White House chief of staff who still advises Clinton on his political travel, said the former president would hold rallies and other high-profile campaign events in the final stretch of tight races. In many other contests, Clinton will be active behind the scenes.
"He is one of those people who can squeeze more out of a day if he needs to," Ricchetti said. "I expect he will do what he always does and then he'll do more, work harder and work longer."
Last week in Chicago, for example, Clinton booked an overlapping, back-to-back dinner for the Illinois Democratic Party and a dessert fund-raiser for Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.).
But time was standing still for Karen Lennon of Chicago, who sat next to Clinton at the dinner. In her eyes, the Clinton controversy is history.
"Doesn't it just bring tears to your eyes to hear him?" asked Lennon, who owns a small lighting business, told a small group of friends. "He's the voice of reason in the wilderness out there."
While Clinton's popularity has improved since he left office, he remains unpopular outside of core Democratic groups. A Gallup poll in March found that of the five living former presidents, Clinton ranked the lowest, with 51 percent of Americans approving of his job as president.