Bill Clinton: Obama's other running mate
(CBS News) His well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention was only the beginning. Bill Clinton is now primed to pitch key voting groups and play a major support role for President Obama during the 2012 presidential campaign's final six-week sprint.
Clinton's post-Charlotte re-emergence began with an appearance on "The Daily Show" Thursday night when he showcased his celebrated ability to boil down Obama's economic argument into simple, statistically driven terms intended to appeal to the country's middle-class voters, while simultaneously casting Mitt Romney as a rigid ideologue who was forced further to the right by the Republican primary process.
"This is a practical country," Clinton told Jon Stewart. "We have ideals, we have philosophies, but the problem with any ideology is it gives the answer before you look at the evidence, so you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you already decided you've got to have. It doesn't work that way. Building an economy, rebuilding an economy, is hard, practical, nuts-and-bolts work."
Clinton will next sit down with Bob Schieffer on CBS News' "Face the Nation" on Sunday before hosting both presidential candidates just an hour apart at the Clinton Global Initiative in Manhattan next Tuesday.
After that, the former president will head back out on the trail, dispatched by the Obama campaign to battleground states on the heels of his two-day swing through Florida last week. Those appearances drew large and fired-up crowds that reveled in the Democratic explainer-in-chief's patented flurry of figures and memorable metaphors.
"It's sort of like having a rock star that's substantive," said Donna Shalala, who served as Clinton's secretary of health and human services throughout his two terms in office. "He takes advantage of being a rock star to explain things to people. He's a world-class teacher. More importantly, he's going to attract crowds and get people excited about voting."
Although the three other living ex-presidents have been mostly out of sight in the 2012 campaign, Clinton's role has become increasingly central during the most critical period of the race.
The Obama campaign is currently running a 60-second advertisement featuring the 42nd president's Charlotte speech, and a senior Obama aide said that Clinton might re-emerge in additional ads for the incumbent in the coming weeks.
Since he left office, Clinton's value as a surrogate campaigner has been difficult to document. But one thing is certain, he's never been more popular. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted before his convention speech clocked Clinton's favorability rating at 69 percent, marking a personal high that has made him even more popular than the widely admired current first lady, Michelle Obama.
The former president's approval rating even tops his wife's almost equally impressive 66 percent favorability, according to Gallup's most recent snapshot of how the nation views the secretary of state.
"It used to be people would say if Hillary became the nominee, which may happen in 2016, then she'd have two running mates -- the vice presidential candidate and Bill," said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. "Well, Obama has two running mates now. He's the first president I can think of who has two running mates, in effect."
Shrum believes that Clinton's holds particular sway with Hispanics and blue-collar whites, the "Reagan Democrats" for whom Obama is not a natural fit.
It was Clinton's broad-based appeal -- so rare in the current political environment -- that for months prompted Romney and other Republicans to try to draw a distinction between the former Democratic president's policies and Obama's.
In doing so, Democrats believe that their opponents set a trap for themselves.
"They made a ridiculous mistake," Shrum said of the Republicans' tactic of elevating Clinton before the convention. "They turned Bill Clinton into a neutral force because they kept praising him. They suffered from some illusion that they were going to drive a wedge between him and Obama, so they put him in an ideal position to validate the president because they had validated Clinton."
Obama often goes to great lengths to mention Clinton on the campaign trail, a contrast with Al Gore's decision to distance himself from his own former running mate's shadow during the 2000 campaign. But times change. Twelve years ago, the Monica Lewinsky scandal was fresh in voters' minds, and Republicans were aligned against the departing Democratic president. Today, the Clinton years remind Democrats, independents, and even some Republicans of better economic times.
As Clinton explained it in an interview with Univision just before Election Day in 2000, "I think it's not about me. I'm not on the ballot."
He won't be on the ballot this time either, but Clinton just may help push Obama over the top in a way he could not do for Al Gore.
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