Bill Clinton used to be a stealth presence in his wife's presidential campaign, raising money and schmoozing supporters largely out of the public eye.
This week, the former president stepped into the spotlight, from his humorous turn in a new Web video to the announcement that he will join Hillary Rodham Clinton on high-profile campaign visits to Iowa and New Hampshire.
Aides say Bill Clinton has long planned to campaign publicly for his wife, and Hillary Clinton often promises audiences they'll see a lot more of him.
Mindful of his charisma and tendency to hog the attention, the campaign has played the Bill card carefully — keeping him in the shadows while giving Hillary Clinton time to establish herself independently. They followed a similar pattern in 2000 when she first ran for the Senate in New York.
"The president's plan all along was to gradually escalate his involvement, so you'll be seeing him more and more," said campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson. "We think he is a huge asset, and we're excited to have him."
Recently, Bill Clinton has cut back on his paid speeches and completed the manuscript for a book on citizen activism that will be published later this year. Aides say he'll continue to be very active with the charitable foundation that bears his name, and he plans a weeklong trip to Africa next month on the foundation's behalf. On Thursday, he announced a new $100 million anti-poverty initiative in Latin America.
But his top priority continues to be "making sure the candidate he believes will be the best president who also happens to be his wife is elected," said his spokesman, Jay Carson.
He has increased his fundraising for the campaign since the last quarter, headlining intimate dinners and larger gatherings across the country. Attendees at most events are expected to give the maximum donation of $4,600.
He also narrated a five-minute biographical Web video and used his acting skills in a witty send-up of the final scene of "The Sopranos." The spoof won raves and has already been viewed at least 500,000 times on the campaign's Web site, with more hits elsewhere on the Internet.
While the couple appeared together at several fundraisers throughout the year, they've attended just one campaign event together — a civil rights commemoration in Selma, Ala., where Sen. Clinton was competing with rival Democrat Barack Obama for attention and support.
That will change the first week in July, when the Clintons plan a three-day campaign swing through Iowa. Polls there show the New York senator in a tough fight with Obama and John Edwards, even as she leads in national polls and most other state surveys.
The Clintons will also campaign together in New Hampshire July 13.
Bill Clinton did not compete in the Iowa caucuses when he first ran in 1992, but he won the state in the general election that year and again in 1996.
He credited New Hampshire with his political salvation in 1992, finishing a close second there after a bruising primary where he fought allegations of draft-dodging and philandering. He went on to win the state in both the 1992 and 1996 general elections.
Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, noted that Bill Clinton's support in the state came primarily from middle- and working-class Democrats and from men. Campaigning at his wife's side could boost her standing with those groups, Scala said.
"I don't think they're feeling desperate or that she is faltering, but my guess is that they are trying to buttress her support," Scala said. "She needs to appeal to middle-class voters and centrists, since progressive types might wonder, 'Is this going to be Bill Clinton's third term?'"
A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found Hillary Clinton with twice the support from women as Obama, but dwindling strength among men.
For many voters, joint campaign appearances for the Clintons will also satisfy the curiosity factor: How is this much-scrutinized couple handling a significant role reversal.
"People want to see Mrs. Obama, they want to see Mrs. Edwards. They want to see the team," said former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who co-chairs the Clinton campaign. "He's a terrific surrogate, she's a great candidate, and we'll see an interplay between them which will be very helpful to her."
To be sure, rival Democrats contend that Bill Clinton's increased involvement in his wife's effort suggests some nervousness in the Clinton campaign about her standing in the race. And the Obama campaign recently indicated its intent to make Bill Clinton a campaign issue — distributing a research document criticizing his friendship with billionaire supermarket mogul Ron Burkle and his $300,000 in speaking fees from Cisco, a company that has moved U.S. jobs to India.
While polls show the former president remains wildly popular with Democrats, Republicans looking down the road said they don't believe he'll help persuade Hillary Clinton skeptics to change their minds about her.
"I think Republicans and many independents are very, very eager for her not to be the president of the United States. And that's regardless of how many times her husband campaigns for her," said Wayne Semprini, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman now with Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid.