09/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Needs Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton wows the Democratic National Convention last night in Denver.

No big-time Democrat got more sideways with the rise of Barack Obama than the big dog himself, Bill Clinton. Wouldn't it be ironic if it turned out that the former president needs to play a very crucial role in Obama's elevation to the office he once held?

I think that, if Obama is to win, Clinton does need to play that very crucial role, and he can play that very crucial role. From what I know of Clinton's schedule, he will be available, assuming that he and the Obama campaign can continue bridging what has been a very large gap. And from what I know of John McCain's strategy, Bill Clinton can be an absolute difference maker in this election. He certainly gave a rousing speech for Obama last night in Denver.

Now, I am not historically a big Bill Clinton fan. While I've found him likable and smart for a couple of decades, I worked against him when he ran for president in 1992. After he became president, I wrote a number of critical columns and articles about him and his administration. I did come to admire the many innovative global good works of his post-presidency. But after seeing in early 2007 that Obama was the emerging figure in the presidential race, Clintonian tactics began to grate.

I think Bill Clinton played the key role in saving Hillary Clinton's campaign after her big loss in Iowa. He gave her good advice, raised big doubts about Obama, and played the key role in reversing Obama's lead amongst blue collar voters in New Hampshire. Obama skidded to a stunning loss.

Bill Clinton played the key role in holding off Obama in the next contest, Nevada. With trademark chutzpah, he claimed that it was Obama's campaign that was intimidating voters, going so far as to stride into a big caucus on the Las Vegas Strip, intimidating voters in the process, to press his claim that Obama's campaign was intimidating voters.

Bill Clinton gets in trouble in South Carolina last January.

Things went south, literally and figuratively, with the next contest in South Carolina, where to many he crossed the line "playing the race card" by pejoratively comparing Obama's huge primary win, with a record turnout, to Jesse Jackson's '80s wins in small turnout caucuses. The controversy went on from there, with the former president making a number of controversial statements, usually in a seeming fit of pique.

It raised the question of whether he would have won in the first place in 1992 had the Internet -- with swift insurgent fundraising, ready research and communication, and, of course, YouTube -- existed back then for folks outside research universities and the Pentagon.

Some associates attributed his troubles to his post-presidential lifestyle, a glittering affair in which he is frequently feted by the super-rich and practically never told he is wrong. He was likened to a once great athlete grown older and slower and softer.

And yet, despite the melodrama that developed around him -- some of it, as he claimed, due to the news media's gotcha tactics of having "embed" stalkers constantly following him around, pointing their little electronic gizmos at him to catch that embarrassing snippet of video or audio footage -- he was still a very effective campaigner. He spent the final two days of the Super Tuesday campaign locking down the California primary, where Obama had enjoyed a brief surge, and was key in Hillary's very narrow win in New Mexico.

By the time the Ohio and Texas primaries rolled around in March, Hillary Clinton was on the ropes. But Bill Clinton came through for her. "Relegated," as the press had it, to "second and third tier markets," i.e., those outside the giant metro areas with the expense account hotels and restaurants, Bill Clinton was a sensation campaigning for his wife.

I've examined those results from Ohio and Texas, and Bill Clinton was a huge factor in Hillary's big win in Ohio. As for Texas, I think Obama would have won the primary there but for Clinton's efforts in the Big Out There outside the Dallas and Houston media markets. As it was, Obama very narrowly lost the primary, while rolling up a huge win in the million-plus turnout caucuses that night.

Once again, Bill Clinton came through, buttressing his wife's campaign when the chips were down, showing his campaign prowess when it was absolutely needed for her candidacy to continue. He did just as well for her in other key states, like Pennsylvania, where Hillary's 9-point victory was just enough to keep her campaign going.

Which gets us to why Obama needs Bill Clinton campaigning for him.

I'm told by Clinton associates that the former president does not have any foreign travel planned between now and the November election. And that he is ready to campaign hard for Barack Obama.

I know that Team McCain is targeting several states in its bid to pull off what now looks like a far less unlikely upset than it should be. These states coincide with the states in which we know that Bill Clinton can be a highly effective campaigner.

Among the principal McCain targets are Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. All economically depressed states that a Democrat should win in this 80% wrong track environment. All states in which Obama is underperforming the Democratic brand.

McCain has campaigned in these states more than Obama. His campaign thought it might have cracked Pennsylvania before now. It hasn't, as Obama leads there, but his lead is in some peril. With his ability to campaign on economic distress and connect with white working class voters, Bill Clinton can lock down the Keystone State for Obama.

He can also help Obama enormously in Michigan, a state that is far closer than it should be, where Obama did not campaign in the primary due to the crazy primary scheduling snafu, and Ohio, which is very close.

He's also a big help with rural voters in Missouri, which Obama won in the primary solely on the strength of an urban vote, and which McCain is targeting. He can help Obama win Virginia, which McCain badly wants to retain, and keep North Carolina, where McCain doesn't want to have to campaign, in play.

And Bill Clinton is a big help in the Mountain West -- the region John McCain hails from -- the new battleground region of the election, as we saw in his own elections as president, and in the narrow Hillary wins in Nevada and New Mexico.

While Bill Clinton was wowing the Democratic national convention last night in Denver, John McCain was in northern Arizona, finalizing the plans for the roll-out of of his vice presidential selection on Friday. Plans which point up Clinton's importance to the Obama campaign.

McCain will introduce his running mate on Friday at a rally in Dayton, Ohio. Then the new twosome will tour Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. All states where Clinton can be a difference maker for Obama.

Yesterday, the Clintons met with 300 of their top fundraisers at Denver's historic Brown Palace Hotel. Lots of hugs and sentiment. And urgings to support Barack Obama.

That financial support hasn't been fast in coming to date. Even slower has been Obama Nation's support for the retirement of Hillary's huge debt.

This was a tough Democratic primary fight, so lingering bad feelings are natural. The irony is that Obama, given Bill Clinton's historic affinity for the African-American community, is someone Clinton would likely have endorsed and helped. Had Hillary not been running herself.

We'll see if Barack Obama and Bill Clinton can get past their differences and win this presidency.