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Campaigning for Wife, Bill Clinton Walks Fine Line

Bill Clinton speaks at a Buffalo, N.Y. rally yesterday. (AP).

By Dan Balz
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- As the Democrats assembled here Monday morning to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of the state capitol, the show of harmony and unity around the King holiday could not disguise the simmering tensions between the Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns -- particularly the role that Bill Clinton has taken up in behalf of his wife.

The former president has emerged as more than just the chief surrogate for Sen. Clinton. He is playing a role almost akin to that of a vice presidential candidate in a general election, leading the charge against the other party's nominee.

His stature commands media attention and his popularity among Democratic voters gives whatever he says added weight. When he has weighed in publicly against Obama, or in strong defense of his wife, his words have been amplified beyond those of any other Clinton surrogate. When he has lobbied behind the scenes for endorsements or support, his arguments have carried special power. Few Democratic activists want to cross a former president.

But Bill Clinton's actions have caused consternation inside the party, even among those who are not publicly committed to either candidate. His "fairy tale" remark about Obama's Iraq war position sparked a sharp reaction, in part because it was interpreted by some African Americans as a slap at Obama's entire candidacy. His heated objections to a reporter's questions about the caucus rules in Las Vegas showed a petulant side of him that was highly unflattering.

The Obama campaign is now beginning to speak out in objection. Barack Obama gave voice to the mounting frustrations within his camp during an interview that aired today on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"You know the former president, who I think all of us have a lot of regard for, has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling," Obama told ABC's Robin Roberts. "He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts -- whether it's about my record of opposition to the war in Iraq or our approach to organizing in Las Vegas."

Obama said Clinton is making a habit of such talk, adding, "One of the things that we're going to have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he's making statements that are not factually accurate."

Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod expressed his frustration in an even sharper language as he spoke with a number of reporters Sunday night, while his candidate was speaking to a large rally at the convention center here in Columbia. "He's basically attacked for several weeks," Axelrod said. "I think that's his role."

"He's becoming increasingly vituperative," Axelrod added. "The last couple weeks there have been a lot of statements coming from him that are just flat out distortions. I respect him as a former president. It's disappointing, because I admire him as a former president, to see that. But he's out there on the battlefield. We're not going to stand by and allow Senator Obama's comments to be distorted by anybody. No one gets a pass when they're parsing words or truncating quotes or trying to mislead people."

"We are in a political campaign," responded Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director. "The Obama campaign has passionate supporters who make a strong case for his candidacy. We have passionate supporters, first and foremost [Bill Clinton], who makes a strong case for her candidacy. That's the way the process is supposed to work. Everything the president has said is factual. He's going to continue to campaign on behalf of his wife. Everywhere and anywhere."

Wolfson defended the former president's comments as an accurate reflection of the record. "I think that Bill Clinton has been an enormous asset to us throughout this campaign," he added. "He draws enormous crowds everywhere he goes. He makes a great case for Hillary. I can understand why that would frustrate the Obama campaign, but the president is going to continue campaigning on behalf of his wife."

What is the proper role for a former president whose wife seeks the same office he once had? Whatever it is, it's not clear that Bill Clinton has arrived at the right one. He obviously cannot remain above the fray. But there is a sense among some of his critics in the party that this has become too personal for him -- that in challenging Obama, he is attempting to preserve his own legacy by assuring that his wife wins the Democratic nomination.

Hillary Clinton demonstrated earlier in the campaign that she was determined to win the nomination on her own merits and that her candidacy was not simply a Clinton restoration project. That, no doubt, is still the way she prefers it.

The Clintons long have been a political couple and a political team, and in the heat of battle against an attractive opponent, she risks allowing her candidacy to be seen as a vehicle for preserving the power of the Clintons and their network, rather than one that charts a more independent course.

It is too much to expect Bill Clinton not to fight hard for his wife, but he must know that, as a former president, there is a fine line he must walk in doing so. It's not clear he has yet found it.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 21, 2008; 11:29 AM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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