Bill Clinton, Scoring a 3rd Run

Bill Clinton works a crowd in Aiken, S.C. -- presumably for his wife.
Bill Clinton works a crowd in Aiken, S.C. -- presumably for his wife. (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

AIKEN, S.C., Jan. 22

The Aiken Standard put a banner headline atop its front page Tuesday morning: "Clinton coming to Aiken." But the subject of the story, and the person in the accompanying photo, was not the woman who aspires to be the 44th president. It was her husband, the 42nd president.

Bill Clinton seemed to like it that way. And he had an answer for Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), an influential figure in this state, who has urged Clinton to "chill a little bit" when it comes to criticizing his wife's main opponent for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama.

"I'm pretty chilled out," Clinton said, sipping hot coffee at a restaurant here, when asked about the congressman's recommendation. Of his attacks on Obama -- he's used language such as "fairy tale" to describe various positions taken by Obama -- Clinton said, "I think it was the right thing to do."

The Post's Dan Balz asked Clinton how he felt being the center of attention in the debate. "I thought it was maybe inevitable," he said.

Does he feel that the campaign is too much about him? "I'm a little unused to this," he answered with an exaggerated laugh. "I'm out of practice." He laughed again, then, surveying the breakfast in front of him, put a spoonful of grits into his mouth.

"I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," Obama complained during Monday night's debate in Myrtle Beach, and no wonder. After Hillary Clinton's collapse in the Iowa caucuses, Bill Clinton shed his presidential dignity and decided to become his wife's designated hitter. Party elders warn that he has fueled a return of racial and gender politics that could doom the party in November. But there can be little doubt that his histrionics helped put his wife back in contention.

Along the way, he often sounds as if he's campaigning for a third term. Here in Aiken, he tried mightily to talk about Hillary, but he kept lapsing into the first person: "My position on that is simple. . . . When I was in law school. . . . When I was president. . . . When I was governor of Arkansas. . . . When I started this schools program. . . . I made the governor of South Carolina secretary of education. . . . I got a Mercury mini-SUV."

With varying degrees of accuracy, Clinton has made Obama look as if he were an ally of President Bush, a fan of Ronald Reagan, a supporter of the Iraq war and a practitioner of electoral dirty tricks.

"You know," Obama complained on "Good Morning America" this week, "we've got a formidable opponent -- actually two formidable opponents at this point, between Senator Clinton and President Clinton." Finally, Obama's anger burst forth Monday night. "There's a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate," he protested.

Arriving at his first stop Tuesday morning -- breakfast at the Lizard's Thicket in Columbia -- the former president was ready to resume sparring with his wife's opponent. "I think that there was nothing specific that I said which was inaccurate," he told reporters after working a roomful of supporters.

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