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At Opening of Clinton Library, Democrats to Talk Strategy

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2004; Page A01

Arkansas may look like it is playing host to a Democratic convention this week, as hundreds of the party's best-known faces and most influential political hands descend on Little Rock for the opening of former president Bill Clinton's presidential library -- an event that suddenly promises to be much more than a nostalgia tour.

It is not just Clinton's presidential past, but his party's -- and his wife's -- presidential future that will be driving conversation at this reunion, Democrats say.

The Clinton Presidential Center officially opens in Little Rock this week with speeches, and lots of talk about the kind of Democrat that can get elected. (Danny Johnston -- AP)

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John F. Kerry's failure to unseat President Bush, who will attend the opening ceremonies on Thursday, gave Democrats new reason to appreciate Clinton as a politician who sometimes stumbled but still managed to win. And it has bolstered those in the party who argue that his brand of centrist politics and policies offers the best path back to victory.

But the debate is not so simple. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the politician with the most personal claim to the Clinton legacy, saw a potential path to the White House opened by Kerry's loss. Yet her luster was simultaneously dimmed by a belief among some Democrats that the party should not again nominate a northeastern senator with a polarizing past and a liberal reputation.

Perhaps not since Robert F. Kennedy, whose Senate seat Hillary Clinton holds, has there been a politician whose presidential future generates more speculation and controversy, ensuring that she will be drawing nearly as much notice as her husband at the media-saturated library opening.

The Clintons, Bush, former president George H.W. Bush, former president Jimmy Carter and others will speak, U2's Bono and the Edge will perform, and thousands of guests will get their first glimpse of the $165 million, 150,000-square-foot glass and steel structure overlooking the Arkansas River.

This confluence of personalities and circumstances will make Little Rock a perfect place for political pot-stirring. "Virtually everyone who is anyone in the Democratic Party will be at the same place at the same time -- at a critical time," said Jake Siewert, a former Clinton White House press secretary.

Although "it's silly to think of this as some sort of '08 strategy session," he added, the event "gives us a chance to reflect on a winning formula" and "puts the Clintons and the Clintons' agenda in the spotlight."

That spotlight has not always been kind in the four years since Clinton left power.

After surviving his 1998 impeachment, Clinton's reputation plunged again -- irreversibly, some commentators predicted at the time -- after he left office amid controversy over a wave of last-minute pardons he granted to fugitive financier Marc Rich and others. His reputation suffered, too, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when some critics complained that the al Qaeda threat had metastasized on Clinton's watch.

Since then, Clinton's stock on the historical exchange has climbed higher, at least among Democrats who contrast his ability to win support around the world with the ill will Bush has garnered among allies over Iraq and other policies.

"He almost always rises back up to the surface, even if events seem to beat him down for a while," said Mark Penn, Clinton's White House pollster, who still regularly asks survey questions to measure the 42nd president's approval rating. "He's become less of a polarizing figure, more of a uniting figure."

Even some voices on the opposite side of the ideological debate agree in part. National Review editor Rich Lowry, who wrote a scathing critique of Clinton's legacy from a conservative perspective in a book published last year, said after Kerry's loss that "a lot of people, not just on the left, have to have an even keener appreciation of Clinton's political abilities.

"He won, and that's a pretty important thing," Lowry said, noting that Clinton in his 1992 and 1996 victories managed to blur the "red state-blue state split that we have now" in part by blunting the suspicion rural and small-town voters harbored toward Democrats over liberalism and cultural issues. An irony of Clinton's tenure, Lowry noted, is that the sex-and-perjury scandal that erupted in his second term helped make the red-blue divisions more vivid than ever.

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