In His Wife's Campaign, Bill Clinton Is a Free Agent

Former president Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- but hardly all the time.
Former president Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- but hardly all the time. (By Stephen Chernin -- Associated Press)
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

LITTLE ROCK -- In the complex transformation of Bill Clinton from former president to candidate's spouse, last week was typical.

One night in New York, he showered affection on his wife during her 60th-birthday-party-slash-fundraiser, joking that when a 23-year-old Hillary Rodham met him at law school decades earlier, "the poor child didn't know any better" than to talk to him. Another day, the two appeared together in Harlem.

But at other points in the week Clinton did not share a stage with his wife, the junior senator from New York. During an expansive speech at his presidential library here, he pivoted from issue to issue, touching on subjects including social inequality, the Nobel Prize and his recent appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

In more than 45 minutes, Clinton failed to mention one timely topic: his wife's presidential campaign. Another day, in Minneapolis, he paid tribute to a prominent donor to her campaign without invoking Hillary's name at all.

Exactly how Clinton would conduct himself during this unprecedented process has been a subject of much speculation from the outset. Advisers worried that his charisma might eclipse his wife, that his past marital misconduct might become an issue again, or that after years of dominating public attention it would be hard for him to cede the spotlight.

But so far, he has maneuvered the uncharted territory of running what amounts to a third presidential campaign largely as a free agent -- attending occasional strategy meetings with senior advisers at the couple's home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and serving as a surrogate in places his wife cannot be, but rarely making his presence felt at the campaign's headquarters in Arlington, several campaign officials said. He is at times out of the loop on campaign strategy and developments, they said.

Whether the remoteness is real or for show is difficult to measure; Hillary Clinton has sought to present herself as her own candidate and to assure voters that she would exercise her own judgment if elected.

But in several television and campaign appearances, and by virtue of his recent travels -- doing the duties of a former president, promoting his new book, championing his foundation work -- Clinton has seemed convincingly on his own, arguably promoting his own causes as much as hers.

Federal election rules are such that Clinton cannot advocate for his wife unless her campaign is financing the event. So as he tours the globe wearing his other hats, he is likely to talk about himself as much as the current presidential candidate.

There is every reason for him to talk about his own life and work, of course. He is one of the most sought-after speakers in the world, collecting about $40 million in fees since leaving office. A Clinton campaign adviser said the former president is still giving some paid speeches, but far fewer these days given his other obligations. (The campaign declined to disclose the precise amount he is taking in speaking fees, a figure that will become public when Hillary Clinton's personal financial disclosure forms are filed later this year.)

Advisers said Clinton maintains an open line to Jay Carson, his former spokesman who now works on his wife's campaign; Mark Penn, his former pollster who is now her chief strategist; and Patti Solis Doyle, the campaign manager. But they said he tends to offer his advice most readily in direct conversations with his wife.

Clinton's approval ratings remain stratospheric, with little evidence in most polling data to suggest that he is having any negative impact on his wife's campaign. Many voters in both parties say they would welcome his influence in a future Clinton administration.

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