WASHINGTON — Former President Clinton on Tuesday offered to help Barack Obama win the White House, although what work he'll do for his wife's former rival remained uncertain.
The Obama campaign is still smarting over some of Bill Clinton's criticism in the primary race, while the last Democratic president remains a popular political draw. But before the two can work together, they have to speak.
Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have taken steps to join efforts in the last three weeks _ she met with him privately, endorsed his campaign and will campaign with him Friday. But the former Democratic president and the man running to be the next one haven't talked since the campaign ended.
Obama said the only reason they haven't spoken is because Clinton is traveling overseas. He praised the former president and said he's "looking forward to setting up a long conversation."
"He's as smart as they come. He's a great strategist. We're going to want him campaigning for me," Obama said Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters as he flew from Las Vegas to Los Angeles for a fundraiser, Obama said he was not certain what Clinton's role would be, but said he was eager to have the former president's help and support.
"I think that just having somebody who knows American politics as well as he does and continues to be such an enormous draw will be hugely helpful," Obama said. "He's got a great following, including among a number of my supporters."
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the 42nd president came up in a phone call between Obama and Hillary Clinton on Sunday. They talked about how Obama should connect with Bill Clinton in the future, Burton said.
Bill Clinton extended his support to Obama for the first time Tuesday in a one-sentence statement from spokesman Matt McKenna.
"President Clinton is obviously committed to doing whatever he can and is asked to do to ensure Senator Obama is the next president of the United States," McKenna said.
It's not clear what Obama might ask him to do. The campaign wasn't specific when asked.
"A unified Democratic Party is going to be a powerful force for change this year and we're confident President Clinton will play a big role in that," was all Burton would say.
Bill Clinton will not attend Friday's rally with his wife and Obama in the symbolic town of Unity, N.H. McKenna said the former president is in Europe this week to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday, give speeches and work for the William J. Clinton Foundation.
Hillary Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee issued a statement after her husband's that didn't mention him. "Senator Clinton is very pleased with how quickly the party is coming together after the primaries, and she will continue to do everything she can to unite Democrats behind Senator Obama as our nominee," Elleithee said.
Bill Clinton was an outspoken critic of Obama during the primary race. He said Obama's opposition to the Iraq war was a "fairy tale" and raised questions about whether the first-term Illinois senator had the experience to lead the country. His remarks angered some black leaders who felt Clinton was dismissing Obama's historic bid, as when he compared Obama's win in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson's victories there in the 1980s.
Clinton fumed in response that it was Obama's campaign that "played the race card on me."
During one debate Obama snapped at Hillary Clinton, "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."
Bill Clinton wasn't the only spouse on edge over the competition. Obama's wife Michelle said of the former president in an interview with The New Yorker magazine, "I want to rip his eyes out!" before adding, "Kidding!"
The former president has been the most valuable personality in the Democratic Party, his political skills contrasting with those of other former Democratic nominees from Jimmy Carter to Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. But his angry outbursts while campaigning for his wife tarnished his image. Obama prizes a tightly controlled message and lack of drama in his campaign, which are not President Clinton's hallmarks.
Half of respondents to an AP-Yahoo News poll conducted in mid-June viewed Bill Clinton favorably. But those voicing a "very favorable" opinion of him dropped from 25 percent in December before the primary voting began to 16 percent in June. Still, the former president is one of the most popular figures in public life and he drew large, enthusiastic crowds when campaigning for his wife.
Democratic consultant Mark Kornblau said the benefits of having Bill Clinton's help outweigh the negatives for Obama. He said Clinton could travel to economically struggling states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan and talk about the prosperity under his presidency and promote Obama's vision.
"He can connect in parts of the country where Senator Obama may need some help, like the Rust Belt, and it will help in further unifying the party after a fractious primary," said Kornblau, who was a spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. "The downside, as we saw in the primary, is that it's a little roll of the dice. But I think it's worth the risk."
Associated Press writer Sara Kugler in Los Angeles contributed to this report.