Bill's magic touch bolsters Hillary's bid
Bill Clinton has never been one to avoid the limelight. Or stay on message. Last week, as he spearheaded a mission to rejuvenate his wife’s troubled presidential campaign, he showed that old habits die hard.
In a publicity stunt at a grocery store in the vital first battleground state of Iowa, the ex-president caused brief chaos by breaking away to chat to the public.
Reporters ended up pursuing him through the deli section.
As Hillary Clinton looked on, her husband then gave an impromptu interview on their private life to a camera crew from Entertainment Tonight and delayed her photo-op. The scene caused unwelcome headlines. “Bill in a china shop,” remarked the tabloid New York Daily News.
But as Hillary Clinton seeks to turn around the troubles assailing her once seemingly invincible bid for the Democratic nomination, one question that has long dogged her has finally been answered. What role would Bill Clinton play in her presidential bid? The answer: a decisive one.
As Hillary Clinton’s campaign has run into trouble over the past month, her husband’s influence has grown to become perhaps the single most important factor in planning and plotting her strategy in the final weeks before voting begins on January 3.
He has devised a new focus and taken to the road in a highly visible attempt to bring her campaign back on track. “The campaign is clearly very concerned about the way things have been going,” said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.
Sources close to the campaign say Bill Clinton is highly active at all levels of the senior decision-making process. It was he who devised the new central “talking points” of Hillary Clinton as an “agent of change”. It was also the former president who has since rolled out the new “change” catchphrases at a series of campaign events.
It is Bill Clinton who is helping draft and polish campaign press releases and who also appears on TV talk shows to launch scathing attacks on his wife’s arch-rival, Senator Barack Obama. Bill Clinton is not just playing good cop or bad cop. He is playing both.
His emergence as the powerhouse of the campaign has also helped settle a fierce internal feud between two opposing camps in so-called Hillaryland: the phrase by which campaign staffers dub those closest to the candidate.
That feud centred on her top pollster Mark Penn, who has shaped her policy-heavy campaign so far, and the political strategist Howard Wolfson, who has argued for a shift to a more personality-laced message. The fight has been bitter, with the normally tight-lipped campaign suddenly beset by leaked details of shouting matches, finger-pointing arguments and rumours of staff shake-ups.
But now the winner in that spat is clear and—masterminded by Bill Clinton—Hillary Clinton has rolled out a “likeability tour” that is seeking to present a warm, personalised image of her candidacy. It is a huge final push for victory. No expense has been spared in the effort. Hillary Clinton has been buzzing around Iowa in a helicopter—immediately dubbed a Hilla-copter—to ensure that her campaign visits each of the state’s 99 counties.
At the same time her mother and daughter have been appearing at campaign events speaking of her in personal terms. A team of farmers from New York—some of them Republicans—have even been touring Iowa’s rural areas praising Hillary Clinton. So has her best friend from school. A video of testimonials has been produced that includes speeches from her dress designer, former law partner and the woman who hosted her wedding reception.
The aim of all this effort is to bolster and project the image of Hillary Clinton as a warm-hearted woman who cares deeply about ordinary Americans. It is heavily at odds with the previous emphasis on her achievements in the Senate, her long experience of political life, and her attention to the detail of policy proposals. “It is working. They have worked hard to do this. The image she is projecting now is different, especially from her first appearances on the campaign,” said Professor Bruce Gronbeck, a campaign communications expert at the University of Iowa.
That is already quite an achievement. Hillary Clinton has long struggled against the idea of making her personality a key feature of her campaign. She often appears ill at ease in discussing her personal life and far more happy talking about the nitty-gritty of real politics. “She is not really comfortable with it in the way other candidates are. She comes across as a bit Mrs Thatcher-like,” said Bowler.
The change in focus shows the influence that Bill Clinton, Wolfson and their supporters now have in turning around the campaign.
Such a shift also plays to the campaigning strengths of Bill Clinton, who is seen as a long-term master of the art of politics with a personal touch. Many Democratic analysts believe he is a huge asset to his wife’s presidential hopes and has been under-used so far. He brings vast experience, political savvy and a reputation as a genius in creating a winning campaign that people want to join. “He clearly is a very skilled campaigner. He can warm up Hillary’s frosty image,” said Bowler.
Bill Clinton is also uniquely popular in Iowa. He has campaigned for his own election in the state twice and maintains close networks of personal friends among the state’s political movers and shakers. He is also fondly remembered there for his swift response to catastrophic flooding in Iowa in 1993 during his first term as President. “People remember things like that. Also, he has worked hard to redeem himself from his presidential scandals. He has put his shortcomings behind him,” said Gronbeck.
But at the same time there is a downside to having Bill Clinton suddenly take such an active and highly visible role. First, he is such a large media presence that he is in danger of sucking away attention from the actual candidate. As the supermarket incident last week showed, Bill Clinton can easily become the focus of the entire story. In reporting the debacle, one paper’s headline bluntly stated: “Bill Clinton seen as upstaging Hillary”. That is not the sort of campaign press coverage that helps win elections.
Bill Clinton is also prone to making gaffes and going off message in ways that can leave Hillary Clinton’s staffers frantically cleaning up the mess. He caused a huge ruckus recently by claiming to have been against the Iraq war from the beginning, which not only goes against his own previous position, but is in direct confrontation with his wife’s votes in support of invading Iraq.
Last week he made another high-profile mistake by claiming that his wife’s first move as president would be to send himself and former President George HW Bush on a diplomatic world tour. Not only was that remark against his wife’s policy, it was a gift for the Republicans. The elder Bush quickly retorted with a snippy statement that shot Bill Clinton down and praised his own son’s presidency.
“He has never discussed an ‘around the world mission’ with either Bill Clinton or Senator [Hillary] Clinton. Nor does he think such a mission is warranted,” said Jean Becker, the elder Bush’s chief-of-staff.
The high profile of Bill Clinton on the campaign trail also raises the prospect of people wondering what role he would play in any future White House. Some worry about whether he would actually see himself as almost returning to power. Others speculate that, if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, her husband will be shuttered away again and kept off the campaign trail. Though that might not be easy. “He’s kind of hard to control. Once you let him out, you can’t really put him back in the bottle,” said one Democratic party strategist who knows him well.
But for the moment the efforts of Bill Clinton and the changed campaign focus seem to have stopped the sudden rot that had gripped Hillary Clinton’s White House bid. After long months of maintaining an unassailable lead, she now lies a few points behind Obama in most polls but has not slid any further down the rankings. That has, in effect, made Iowa a three-way contest between Obama, Clinton and former Senator John Edwards, who could easily capitalise on the fight between the two main candidates and finish a surprise second or even first.
The fact is that the Democratic race has become almost impossible to predict. “It’s exciting. No one can say who is going to win at the moment,” said Bowler.
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Though unknown in Britain, the star baseball pitcher for the Boston Red Sox is hugely famous in America. He has come out for Republican John McCain. - Guardian Unlimited Â