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Bill Clinton's Controversial Role Is Subtext At Campaign Event

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Amherst, N.H. -- As he took to the podium today in the Souhegan High School gym to advocate on his wife's behalf, questions swirled as to whether former president Bill Clinton was a campaign blessing or burden.

Following Sen. Hillary Clinton's third place showing in the Iowa caucus, much discussion has been devoted to what, exactly, had been at fault in her White House strategy. And as detailed in several media accounts, including the Associated Press and the New York Times, some of the blame has been cast Bill Clinton's way.

"The profile of Bill Clinton isn't necessarily an ideal backdrop for a campaign in which change is emerging as the coin of the realm and Hillary Clinton is swapping slogans by the week," the AP's version went.

Inside the school auditorium, the same topic was focus of much discussion. The consensus that seemed to emerge, from interviews with onlookers, political observers, and even former office holders, was that Bill Clinton could be both hindrance and help.

"Clinton has a love-hate relationship with the public," offered Jay Bradford, the former president of the Arkansas State Senate who had traveled to New Hampshire to campaign on Sen. Clinton's behalf. "When it's a love relationship he does nothing but help Hillary. When it is a hate relationship he should not be visible. Right now, in New Hampshire, it's a love relationship."

Don Saballus, a 69-year-old Democrat from Maryland who had come to New Hampshire to check out the scene, said: "It seems to be that he and Hillary may be diverging and that can be difficult to determine who is right and who to follow. He is the star. A lot of people would like to see him in the White House and probably would have voted for him for a third term if they could have. But now, it's eight years later. Do people still hold those feelings?"

Frank Luntz, the renowned Republican consultant and messaging guru saw a similar mixed bag with Bill Clinton's campaign presence.

"In almost every case there is a positive reaction in term of communication on her behalf," he told the Huffington Post. "But there is a little bit more of a split when they start talking about things they don't want to remember about the 1990s. In the end, he is a better communicator for her than she is."

Indeed, as Luntz and the AP hinted at, President Clinton propensity to delve into his own accomplishments - while in the process of championing his wife's - tends to prove problematic for her attempts to be framed as an "agent of change." On cue, during his roughly hour and ten minute address to the audience, the former president repeatedly referenced his own resume when touting Senator Clinton's.

Asked about the worsening situation in Kenya, he declared, "I worked with Kenya, I have a big project there;" before offering Hillary's position on ending the violence in the country.

When the topic of global warming came up, he said, "I was shocked when I found out she knew more about climate change than I did, since I was doing it for my foundation."

And when he lauded Hillary's economic credentials by positing that, economically, "she still think that arithmetic counts for something," he pivoted quickly to his own successes in balancing the budget.

But for all the back-and-forth focus on his years in the White House, Clinton did draw and captivate the crowd. More than 1,700 people showed up, according to Clinton's spokesperson Matt McKenna, and two hundred - including journalists Walter Isaacson and Joe Klein - were left outside because of a lack of seating.

Dozens of students sat on a bleacher in the back with their legs dangling off the ledge because no chairs were available. Ovations frequently interrupted his speech and question and answer session. This was the third of Clinton's five events during the day.

Bill Clinton did not directly mention Senator Barack Obama, his wife's chief competitor for the nomination. "I love this Democratic Primary," he said. "I don't have to be against everybody. We've all been elections were we held our nose and voted one way just because we didn't want the other candidate to win. I don't feel that way." But he did on occasion offer a subtle jab at the Illinois Democrat. "Do you want the feeling of change," he rhetorically asked, "or the fact of change?"

There was one sequence where he took what is perceived to be Obama's campaign rallying point - the ability to bridge partisan divides - and applied that attribute to his wife, noting her work with Republicans on issues such as reforming adoption laws, climate change and even defense policy.

In all, the crowd, still warm to Clinton from his go around in the New Hampshire primary in 1992, responded with enthusiastic and positive reviews.

"I think he helped her today," said Carrie Small, a 29-year-old native of New Hampshire. "I think she's a strong candidate herself and to have two strong leaders in the White House. You can't get much better than that."

Check out HuffPost's comprehensive on-the-ground New Hampshire coverage here.

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