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Bill Clinton's South Carolina Ties

Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife during a campaign stop in Aiken, S.C. (AP).

By Dan Balz
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The morning after the most rancorous debate of the Democratic campaign began for former president Bill Clinton at the Lizard's Thicket restaurant just north of downtown.

The man who was at the center of much of the argument between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Myrtle Beach debate, the man who has been urged to dial back his advocacy, was not on good behavior -- sartorially at least. In the home city of the University of South Carolina, he was wearing a politically incorrect, bright orange (read Clemson) necktie.

"Mr. President, you know this is Gamecock country," one man said to Clinton as he shook hands with the restaurant's patrons, a reminder that folks here take their football and school loyalty seriously.

"I didn't do it on purpose," Clinton said, sounding chagrined and apologetic.

He offered no apologies, however, for the role he has played in his wife's presidential campaign. Was South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn wrong to have urged the former president to chill out?

Clyburn earlier had jumped Clinton for his "fairy tale" comment about Obama's Iraq record -- a remark interpreted by some Democrats, particularly in the African American community, as a slap at Obama's entire candidacy and a denigration of his politics of hope. Before Monday's debate, he urged Clinton again to tone it down.

Clinton was nonplused. "He was in Australia or someplace when all this happened and I had the impression when I talked to him that he'd gotten one side of the argument," he said of Clyburn. "But I'm pretty chilled out, don't you think?"

The former president was in a chatty, conversational mood as he surveyed the bank of TV cameras, photographers and reporters craning to hear what he had to say about the campaign.

He was asked about Obama's quip at the debate that he wasn't sure sometimes whether he was running against Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton. "I thought he was running against me in Nevada for a while when he said Republicans had ideas and challenged the conventional wisdom in the '90s," Clinton said.

It was clear that whatever Obama meant when he talked about the Republicans as the party of ideas over the past 10 to 15 years, Clinton had taken it personally. "I thought we challenged the conventional wisdom in the '90s," he said.

He talked about growing the economy while balancing the budget, about protecting the environment without harming the economy, about being pro-labor and pro-business, about reforming welfare and moving people into jobs.

"I don't really think he's running against me," he said. "I just think he was doing what he thought he should do."

The former president has become more than his wife's chief surrogate in South Carolina. Given her absence for part of this week, he is the face of the Clinton campaign. He told one person in the restaurant that after a return to Washington Tuesday night, he will be working the Palmetto State on behalf of his wife the rest of the week.

His wife's schedule this week, focused on states with contests on Feb. 5, suggests she is trying to tamp down expectations in the first Democratic primary in the South. Obama's strong support in the African American community makes it likely she will lose for the first time since Iowa. The less time she spends in the state, the more her campaign hopes an Obama victory will be discounted.

"I think we'll be fine here," the former president told reporters. "I like it here. These people were very good to me."

When a reporter asked Clinton about whether was playing the role of attack dog for his wife, he shrugged it off. The only time he had gone after Obama, he said, was over what he said were insignificant differences in the two candidates' positions on Iraq -- a view with which Obama takes sharp issue, given Hillary Clinton's support for the 2002 resolution authorizing the war and Obama's stated opposition to the invasion at the time.

"This is all just politics," he said of the quarrel between the candidates.

"It's really, really important not to overblow the inevitable back and forth that happens in every campaign, particularly if you've got now three talented people -- we did have six immensely talented people -- who in general agreed with each other. Sometimes when you have a family feud, it's harsher than if you have a feud with somebody in another clan because you have to dig so hard to get to where the differences are."

Voters, he insisted, could care less about the kinds of questions reporters were throwing at him. "You guys want to hear the politics," he said. "The voters want to hear the issues. Nobody ever asks me about any of this at a town meeting."

On his way toward the exit, a reporter asked one of Clinton's associates whether the former president was as good a politician as he had been in 1992. "Better," came the reply.

Clinton offered a different assessment. "He's rusty and old and creaky," he said of himself.

You wouldn't have worn that tie in 1992, he was told.

Proving he is rusty and creaky, Clinton responded, "I was stylistically challenged in '92."

He did not pick up on the inference that in 1992 he would have known better than to wear a Clemson tie in the city of the South Carolina Gamecocks.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 22, 2008; 2:39 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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