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Bill Clinton: Campaign asset or liability for Hillary Clinton?

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) and Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton take the stage at the Central Iowa Democrats Fall Barbecue in Ames, Iowa November 15, 2015.

MARK KAUZLARICH, REUTERS

Hillary Clinton is getting a preview of the challenges she'll face having one of the country's most gifted -- but most polarizing -- politicians as her top surrogate.

Donald Trump has all but ensured that Bill Clinton's sexual history will loom over his first day on the campaign trail for his wife. He's scheduled to appear at two grassroots organizing events Monday.

It's fair, Trump says, to target Bill Clinton, and some liberals even agree with him, including Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.

"Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump, appropriately and correctly, for sexist remarks, of which there are many. Bill Clinton's record with women then becomes fair game," Marcus said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday. "She also has designated him as her surrogate in chief. He will be out on the campaign trail this week. When she does both of those things, attacks Trump for sexism, picks Bill Clinton as her surrogate, his record becomes fair game."

Marcus specified she was not talking about extramarital affairs, but rather Bill Clinton's "predatory, offensive, inappropriate" conduct with women, including the former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"I think it's smart for Trump to raise in a primary campaign. There are no Republican voters who are going to be offended by this," she said.

In the last week, Trump has suggested that Bill Clinton has demonstrated a "penchant for sexism," and called him a "degenerate" and "one of the great abusers of the world." And he will be campaigning next door in Lowell, Massachusetts, just 20 miles away from Bill Clinton Monday. Trump is making a concerted effort to turn the former president into a problem, waging a relentless campaign to highlight Bill Clinton's sordid past.

"It hasn't been a very pretty picture for her or for Bill. Because I'm the only one that's willing to talk about his problems. I mean, what he did and what he has gone through I think is frankly terrible, especially if she wants to play the woman card," Trump said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Hillary Clinton's other Republican rivals are not as inclined to use her husband as a line of attack, even if they don't disagree with Trump. Former Hewlett Packard Executive Carly Fiorina has said Bill Clinton is "fair game" as a former president, but that's not the way to beat Hillary Clinton. Mike Huckabee, who, like Bill Clinton, once served as governor of Arkansas, even defended him in an interview on "Fox & Friends," saying he "knew how to govern."

Sanders has taken a different tack. He said Bill Clinton's sex life is not fair game when asked about it Sunday.

"No, I think we have got more important things to worry about in this country than Bill Clinton's sex life," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."

At least one Republican official so far disagrees with Sanders and has made it pretty clear. As Hillary Clinton campaigned in Derry, New Hampshire, Sunday, GOP New Hampshire State Rep. Katherine Prudhomme-O'Brien repeatedly heckled Hillary Clinton, who told her, "You are very rude and I'm not never ever going to call on you." Prudhomme-O'Brien later told reporters she wanted to confront Clinton about claims that her husband sexually assaulted Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey.

Whether it will be an effective attack remains to be seen. But unlike much of what he says, Trump hasn't faced backlash for making Bill Clinton a campaign issue.

New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin noted on "Face the Nation" that in 1998, Republicans faced "a huge blowback" when they attempted to use the Lewinsky scandal as a bludgeon against the Democratic Party.

Bill Clinton remains very popular among Americans. His approval rating peaked at a whopping 69 percent in 2012, according to Gallup. While it has declined slightly since then, 59 percent of people still said in a May survey that they approved of the former president.

Beyond his history with women, though, Bill Clinton has also been a volatile figure on the campaign trail. In 2008, Bill Clinton lashed out at then-Sen. Obama's campaign for "playing the race card on me" after he compared then-candidate Obama's success in South Carolina to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's victories in the state in 1984 and 1988. He also suffered among some African-American voters after calling Mr. Obama's campaign "the biggest fairy tale that I have ever seen."

Ultimately, 58 percent of South Carolina voters surveyed in exit polls said Bill Clinton's presence on the campaign trail was "important" in their decisions. Those voters picked then-Sen. Obama by a margin of 48 percent to 37 percent.

In an interview with ABC in August 2008, he was asked whether he blamed himself for his wife's loss in the Democratic primary.

"I've heard it from the press and I will not comment on it....There are things I wished I said. Things I wished I hadn't said. But I am not a racist," he said.

In 2012, he would come to Mr. Obama's defense on the issue of race. It was Bill Clinton who criticized surrogates of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney when they suggested that race had motivated former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, to endorse Obama.

"Obama has been a good commander-in-chief without regard to race," he said.

Bill Clinton also proved to be a tremendous asset during the president's 2012 reelection campaign, delivering a rousing speech at the 2012 Democratic convention that made the arguments for Mr. Obama's reelection look obvious.

"In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president's re-election was actually pretty simple -- pretty snappy," Bill Clinton recalled. "It went something like this: We left him a total mess. He hasn't cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in."

"I like the argument for President Obama's re-election a lot better," he continued. "Here it is. He inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a modern, more well- balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses and lots of new wealth for innovators."

And while in 2012, the recovery hadn't fully taken hold, Mr. Obama, Clinton argued, "has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president's contract, you will feel it."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.