Boulder City, Nevada-- When it came to crunch time earlier this month during the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton called out and relied upon her most reliable and powerful political ally: her husband Bill Clinton.
And with the Nevada caucuses coming up on Saturday morning, once again the former president has been deployed as the Clinton campaign's heavy artillery. Smoother-talking than a slick diplomat, more charming than a movie star, equal parts statesman, wonk, lounge comic and attack dog, Bill Clinton is nothing less than Hillary Clinton's Super-Surrogate.
Dressed in a finely-cut taupe business suit, a pale blue shirt, bright orange tie and burnished burgundy cowboy boots, Bill Clinton stood on a middle school gym stage here on the outskirts of Las Vegas and -- for well over an hour -- held a standing-room-only audience of hundreds of Hillary supporters nearly mesmerized.
It was only one of more than a half-dozen public events that Bill Clinton had on his go-it-solo campaign schedule today.
Warning that the U.S. is currently in a "heap of trouble" and calling his wife a "world-class change maker that will make a real difference in people's lives," the former president said he'd be up on the stage supporting Hillary Clinton even if he had never married her. "I want you to caucus for her because she'd be a great president, a really great president," he said.
In sharp contrast to his wife, whose public campaign appearances are often curt, awkward and as tightly controlled and choreographed as a ballet performance, Bill Clinton effortlessly soaks up and reflects back the rapt attention he commands from his audiences. Alternating between a twangy folksiness and deliberate wonky-ness, shifting from finger-wagging admonishments to cornpone story-telling, Clinton mixed up his style and approach with the startling skill of a veteran poker dealer cutting up the deck.
If Saturday's caucus would be decided, then, purely on the basis of which surrogate can be produced by each candidate it would be a Hillary Clinton landslide. The most prominent celebrity brought to Nevada by John Edwards is second-tier actress Madeline Stowe. And while no less than Oprah stumped for Barack Obama in Iowa, the best the Illinois senator could produce in terms of celebrity surrogates in Nevada is defeated 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry.
"Not exactly much of a comparison," said a Nevada Democratic Party committeeman as he eyed the school gym brimming with Bill Clinton's admirers. "Earlier today I was at a Kerry event at a local library and let's put it this way: the tea and cookies were OK and the small crowd was polite - at least those who stayed awake."
Bill Clinton's star power also allows him to be used as the "bad cop" of a campaign that has strained to soften and humanize the often brittle public image of its candidate. It's left to him to do the less savory tasks of routine campaigning, precisely because his clout is so enormous, he can usually get away with it. When asked by a questioner in today's audience how big of a role he would play in a Hillary Clinton administration, he cracked a wide smile, offered the audience one of his trademark lowerings of his head and said, "I will do whatever I am asked to do."
Which is exactly what he's been doing.
It was the ex-president who has been deployed during the campaign to warn that nominating Barack Obama would be "roll[ing] the dice" and that Obama's anti-war record was a "fairy tale." It was Bill, not Hillary, who has been snarling and hassling with unfriendly reporters. And while the Clinton campaign at first declared itself neutral in a controversial and unsuccessful lawsuit that would have shifted the rules of this Saturday's Nevada caucus, it was the ex-president who came out publicly to support it.
A similar tact was taken by the ex-president Thursday when twice during his appearance at the middle school he invoked the specter of another 9/11 as a compelling reason to nominate his wife. "The presidency gets real interesting," Clinton said with a slightly didactic tone, "when something happens that you never talked about during the campaign. Like 9/11. Katrina, or the recent horrible events in Pakistan."
It's then, Clinton said, that "the ground moves beneath the feet" of the president and only the steadiest of leaders are up to the job. From there Clinton went on to gently but directly deride, by name, his wife's chief opponent, Barack Obama. "It's not enough for the president just to have vision," Clinton said referring to an Obama statement from a recent debate. "Enough of all this hot air talking," he said. "We've got to start doing again."
There was, however, one moment of unintended mirth in Bill Clinton's performance. After warning of dire potentials for global conflict, Clinton said of his wife: "She is prepared for any of these national security issues. She's got great experience at managing disasters." That last line brought scattered chuckles from the audience but a chorus of audible laughs from a press corps who couldn't escape some of the obvious irony.Video: Bill Clinton in Boulder City, Nevada:
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