By Anne E. Kornblut and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 30, 2007
NASHUA, N.H. -- Former president Bill Clinton yesterday delivered in stark terms a version of his wife's central campaign message: that her experience in Washington better prepares her to "deal with the unexpected."
Addressing more than 100 supporters at a VFW hall here Saturday, Clinton used the strongest language he has so far in the campaign to describe the threats facing the nation, making an oblique reference to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and saying that the "most important thing of all" in selecting a nominee is the question of who could best manage unforeseen catastrophes.
"You have to have a leader who is strong and commanding and convincing enough . . . to deal with the unexpected," he said. "There is a better than 50 percent chance that sometime in the first year or 18 months of the next presidency, something will happen that is not being discussed in this campaign. President Bush never talked about Osama bin Laden and didn't foresee Hurricane Katrina. And if you're not ready for that, then everything else you do can be undermined. You need a president that you trust to deal with something that we will not discuss in this campaign. . . . And I think, on this score, she's the best of all."
After trying out various themes and rationales for her campaign, Hillary Clinton has settled in the final week before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary on the experience plank, arguing that she is the only one of the front-running Democratic candidates prepared to lead from the first day in office, a claim her rivals have challenged by questioning the value of her tenure as first lady. Clinton advisers noted privately this week that the experience argument was bolstered by the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the threat of wider unrest in that country. Clinton pressed the point during a stop in Eldridge, Iowa, telling reporters: "I'm not asking you to take me on faith. I'm not asking you to take a leap of faith."
But the campaign has apparently decided that the person best able to make this case in the bluntest terms is the former president. "Who better to explain what it takes to be president than the last two-term president the Democrats have had since FDR?" said Mark Penn, chief strategist for the Clinton campaign.
Bill Clinton has been edging closer in recent weeks to arguing that the country would be taking a chance if voters nominated someone with less experience in Washington, a dig at her main rivals, former senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Speaking in Plymouth, N.H., last week, he said that his wife would be best suited to handle the challenges of terrorism, climate change and income inequality. He hinted that if these challenges were not met, the world, or at least American democracy, might be in peril in the coming decades.
"How we meet those challenges will determine whether our grandchildren will even be here 50 years from now at a meeting like this listening to the next generation's presidential candidates," Clinton said in Plymouth. He did not elaborate on what he meant by the prospect of the audience members' grandchildren not being there in 50 years.
His comments Saturday were incorporated directly into his standard stump speech and not ad-libbed. In past weeks, he has argued that there are three reasons to nominate his wife: her vision, her plans and her record. In Nashua, he said there was a fourth reason: her ability to deal with unseen threats.
It is a type of election argument most often adopted by incumbent candidates. In President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, Vice President Cheney invoked a particularly bold form of it, warning of the consequences of a John Kerry election for the nation's security against terrorism: "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again -- that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States."
The Edwards campaign warned recently that the Clinton campaign would try to play on voters' national security fears in the closing days before voting in Iowa and New Hampshire. "We know that Senator Clinton will spend the week touting her national security credentials in a move that echoes George Bush's 2004 campaign," said a memo written by Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager for Edwards. "We believe Democrats will not be fooled by efforts to play on their fears."
Hillary Clinton caused a slight stir on the trail several months ago when she argued at a house party in New Hampshire that she would be better prepared to respond to Republican tactics if there were a terrorist attack sometime during the general election campaign.
"It's a horrible prospect to ask yourself, 'What if? What if?' "Clinton told voters in Concord. "But, if certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world." She added that she would be the best Democratic candidate "to deal with that."
Former president Clinton's firm adherence to the closing argument that his wife is the best qualified to be president has been a cause of quiet relief to those Hillary Clinton aides who had come to worry about his occasional freelancing. It has allowed the campaign to use Clinton in the final hours as they had hoped: As a charismatic advocate for the candidate, with a booming megaphone, who can help boost turnout in Iowa on Jan. 3.
But there is another subtext, as well. Clinton is able, some supporters believe, to help neutralize the concerns among women about the authenticity of the Clinton marriage. For those women, who may in the final hours remain uncertain about supporting the former first lady, it can be helpful to see her husband onstage demonstrating their personal connection.
The former president has been making stops both with his wife and on his own. During a church service in Waterloo, Iowa, last weekend, Clinton wrapped his arm around his wife as they listened to the preacher before introducing her as someone he had admired for more than three decades. On Friday and Saturday, Clinton was on his own, first in Iowa and then in New Hampshire. He is scheduled to return to Iowa on Sunday for another two full days of events -- starting in the western part of the state, while his wife is covering the opposite end of Iowa in the east -- before the two rejoin in Des Moines for a 10 p.m. rally on New Year's Eve.
At the VFW hall in Nashua, Clinton spent much of the 45-minute speech talking about the achievements of his own administration, and took several of his characteristic detours into the depths of policy detail, on the fine points of improving energy efficiency in buildings, expanding biofuels and reducing medical paperwork. But he made sure to veer back relatively quickly to his case for Hillary Clinton, describing her work in child advocacy before 1992 and her role in expanding health care and assisting in diplomatic ventures abroad while in the White House.
"If Hillary and I had not been married since 1975 and she had asked me to come here and I had known her all these years anyway, knowing what I do about the presidency and the demands of the current moment, I would come here in heartbeat to campaign for her," he said. "Because I think she's the best qualified person seeking the candidacy I've ever had a chance to vote for, including me in 1992."
That Clinton, who took no questions, hewed so tightly to the script of his usual pitch to undecided voters was particularly notable, given that he was addressing an audience of mostly committed supporters who already knew many of the things about Hillary Clinton that he was describing. He even asked them to sign campaign supporter cards, the standard entreaty to undecided voters, even though most in the room had already done so and were even signed up to volunteer before the primary.
But several of those in attendance said the speech had served a purpose, nonetheless, reminding them just how much they admire the Clintons and how important it is that the Clintons win back the White House. "It reinforces, it really does," said Betty Maddocks, a retired nurse from Nashua who was so excited about Clinton's election in 1992 that she and her husband went to Washington for a week for the inauguration. "The world loves Bill Clinton."
In an interview Saturday, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, a prominent Clinton ally in the state, said there was no doubt that the former president was still helping to sway undecided voters. "I was just with him for two days, and I can't tell you how many people came up to me after his talk to say, 'I didn't realize Hillary had done so many things in her life,' " he said. "He basically persuaded them to become Hillary Clinton supporters."
Kornblut reported from Eldridge. Staff writer Peter Baker in Iowa contributed to this report.