In election’s last weeks, Obama campaign deploys Bill Clinton to battleground states

September 11, 2012

The newly minted “secretary of explaining stuff” came to this key Democratic stronghold Tuesday to explain a few things about the choices facing the nation in November’s presidential election.

For 41 statistic-filled, wonky minutes, former president Bill Clinton held forth to an adoring crowd at Florida International University about the economy, health care, taxes and the national debt, reprising remarks he made on behalf on President Obama at last week’s Democratic National Convention. An appreciative Obama borrowed a Twitter joke and gave Clinton the new “secretary” nickname.

“The test is not whether you think everything’s hunky-dory,” Clinton told a crowd of 2,300 in his first campaign event since wowing the Charlotte convention audience. “If that were the test, the president would vote against himself. He’s said that everything’s not hunky-dory. . . . The test is whether he’s taking us in the right direction.”

Clinton’s speech was less rally and more lecture as he offered a robust defense of the Democrats’ stimulus bill, health-care overhaul and plans for taming the national debt. Above all, he argued that a 21st-century economy needs government and business to work together.

“If you look around the world today, no country making progress on creating a society where people share the future — not a single one — got there with a militant, bitter, anti-government strategy. Why? Because what works in the modern world is partnership,” he said.

Clinton earned top marks even from Republicans for his plainspoken yet professorial dissection in Charlotte of the key election issues, and his new rock-star status seemed destined to make him take on an expanded role in the campaign’s final eight weeks.

On Wednesday, Clinton will appear in the important swing area of Orlando.

Obama campaign officials believe that the former president’s popularity is near universal and that he can be successfully deployed in all the major battlegrounds of the nation. In addition to Florida, they indicated that he will campaign in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire and will headline fundraisers on both coasts.

It is not without danger for the president to lean so heavily on a former rival who presided over a time of peace and prosperity that appears idyllic in comparison with Obama’s tenure. The president cannot afford for Democratic admiration for Clinton to turn to nostalgia for the past rather than enthusiasm for a second Obama term.

Already, a Pew Research Center poll found that two times as many people who watched at least some of the Charlotte convention cited Clinton’s speech as the top highlight, not Obama’s remarks.

Elevating Clinton also always leads to a new round of speculation about the former president’s motives and whether his true aim is to lay the groundwork for a possible second presidential run by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in 2016.

And for all his rhetorical prowess, the high-flying Clinton always carries the risk of off-message moments.

There have been a series of such remarks in recent months, as Clinton, acting in his guise as post-partisan elder statesman, has offered a more gentle take on Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney than has Obama. For instance, in May, the former president cited Romney’s “sterling business record” even as Obama was savaging the Republican’s tenure at private equity firm Bain Capital.

Ironically, it is Romney who has helped turn Clinton into such a valuable validator for Obama this year.

Romney and his surrogates have repeatedly cited Clinton — his work on welfare reform, his cooperation with congressional Republicans, his attitudes on business — to draw a comparison with the supposedly less competent Democrat who now holds office.

On Monday, Clinton announced that Romney has accepted an invitation, along with Obama, to address the annual meeting of his foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative.

In so doing, Republicans have handed Clinton new credibility to offer something of a nonpartisan diagnosis of the nation’s ills. And he made clear in Miami on Tuesday that he believes the prescription for solving those problems is reelecting Obama.

Citing Obama’s private-sector job creation record — 4.5 million new jobs since the economy bottomed out in 2009 — Clinton said, “You have to decide if you think that’s an accident and you’re willing to bet your future on it.”

In Miami, he was greeted with an enthusiasm that rivals what is offered to Obama.

Clinton is “so dynamic. He’s so charismatic,” said George Cohen, 61, a freelance writer and Obama volunteer from Miami. “He’s firing up the base, which is good. There’s been some lethargy.”

Cohen said he’s a fan of the president, who he thinks has handled the tough economy well. But when asked who he would prefer on the ballot in November, he answered quickly: “I’d pick Clinton.”

Karen Tumulty in Washington contributed to this report.

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