Super Surrogate

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008; 9:01 AM

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It looks like a singular political figure has suddenly broken through and united both the left and the right in this country.

Everybody seems to be ticked at Bill Clinton.

When Barack Obama said at the debate Monday that he wasn't sure which Clinton he was running against, he wasn't kidding. With Hillary Clinton having vacated the Palmetto State, Bill is the Clinton campaign here. And the buzz among reporters was about dropping off the Obama tour to watch 42 in action.

But is 42 helping his wife become 44?

Sure, he's helping soften up Barack by playing the attack-dog role. Obama punches back at Myrtle Beach and Hillary's like, Bill who? He's not here, and I didn't say what you're criticizing him for saying. Not that anyone is fooled.

On the downside, Bill has been stretching the facts a bit, though only some in the media are calling him on it. Every politician does this a bit, exaggerating what an opponent has said just enough so he has to deny the distorted version. But how did we go from Obama praising Ronald Reagan as a transformative figure--which may or may not be smart politics--to Bubba saying Obama has liked all the Republican ideas since 1980?

Obama repeatedly brought this up on the trail here, showing that he thinks he's winning the argument. On the other hand, such attacks take him off his game, which is precisely the point.

Now comes the imponderable: Does having Bill in such a front-and-center role remind people too much of the '90s, and make it look like she's running for his third term?

Bill isn't drawing rave reviews, but he gets grudging respect from Fred Barnes:

"It took a while--for the duration of the Iowa campaign, to be exact--but the Clintons have figured out the most productive way to use former President Bill Clinton in Hillary Clinton's campaign. Their division of labor is very simple: he criticizes Barack Obama while she mostly stays positive. It worked in New Hampshire and again in Nevada.

"What didn't work was having Bill campaign with Hillary, speaking before his wife at events and introducing her. That was tried earlier in Iowa and of course she lost the caucuses there in what feels like an eternity ago but was actually only three weeks ago. At joint events, he overshadowed her and spent much of his time talking about himself. This prompted a newspaper cartoon with a tiny Hillary standing on the shoulder of a huge Bill. Now they appear separately.

"And they seem to understand Bill's unique value in the campaign. As an ex-president he can command extensive media attention. What he says gets widespread coverage. In effect, he has a megaphone as big as his wife's, maybe bigger. No other presidential candidate has a surrogate like Bill Clinton. Obama certainly doesn't.

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