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Former president Clinton on mission to rescue Democratic Party in fall elections

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010; 12:01 AM

Bill Clinton is baffled. The former president's friends say he is in disbelief that in the closing weeks of the midterm campaigns Democrats have failed to articulate a coherent message on the economy and, worse, have allowed themselves to become "human pinatas."

So Clinton is deploying himself on a last-ditch, dawn-to-dusk sprint to rescue his beleaguered party. And as the only president in modern times who has balanced the federal budget, he is leveraging his credibility to become one of the most fierce defenders of President Obama's economic policies.

"To hear the Republicans tell it, from the second President Obama took his hand off the Bible taking the oath of office, everything that happened after that was his fault," Clinton said this week at a campaign rally for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). "I'd like to see any of you get behind a locomotive going straight downhill at 200 miles an hour and stop it in 10 seconds."

If there was any doubt that Clinton remains the Democratic Party's North Star, it has been erased over the past few weeks as he has packed legions of supporters into basketball arenas, college quads and airport hangars. He is the Democrats' most in-demand messenger and, unlike Obama, he is summoned everywhere - no matter how hostile the territory.

By Election Day, Clinton will have traveled to more than 100 events, including one Thursday in Maryland, where he appeared with Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Some Democrats are troubled that Clinton, who left office a decade ago, is a bigger draw than Obama and the party's current leaders. "Bill Clinton is not going to live forever, and it's time for the Democratic Party to develop other voices," said Bob Rucker, a journalism profressor, as he left a recent Clinton rally at San Jose State University.

But even with his party out of favor, polls show Clinton is among the most popular national political figures in the country. His newfound popularity among Republicans is a notable reversal from 16 years ago - when, two years into his presidency, a GOP resurgence cost Democrats both chambers of Congress.

"Look, folks, I've seen this movie before, in 1994," Clinton said at the rally in Everett, Wash. "I called the president the other day, and I said: 'Relax. They haven't said anything about you they didn't say about me. The only reason they're being nice to me right now is because I can't run for anything any more.' "

'Keep on being mad'

Clinton's pitch is rooted in empathy and delivered off the cuff. In Everett, he laid out what he said is the Republican argument: "I know you're angry. I know you're scared. . . . So let's make this a referendum on everything that's bothering you about life right now - take everything that's not working right now and put Patty Murray's face on it and make it a referendum."

"It is not a referendum. It. Is. A. Choice," he continued, pausing between each word for emphasis, "a choice between two different sets of ideas."

Clinton exhorted the crowd to "keep on being mad. But concentrate your anger so that it clarifies your judgment instead of clouding it. . . . The worst thing you can do right now is bring back the shovel brigade to start digging the hole again."

No other Democrat has so consistently given voice to the mood of this year's volatile, angsty electorate. Where other politicians speak of the housing crisis in staid terms - "Mortgages? I understand homes are underwater," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a debate last week - Clinton talks about bad mortgages as if his family were shackled with one.

"More than 10 million of us are living in houses not worth as much as our mortgages, and we can't move like we used to do because our credit would be toast for a decade," Clinton said at a stop in Espanola, N.M., never betraying that he is a millionaire many times over and the owner of multiple properties.

Clinton connects with "how normal 'walking-around' folks are feeling," said Paul Begala, a confidant and former top strategist. "Both the right and the left have mocked that I-feel-your-pain empathy, but Americans have always liked it. It's the core of him, even more than the brain. It's real."

Over the past two weeks, Clinton has had one day off, Saturday, which he spent in Northern California with his close friend Terry McAuliffe. The two stayed up late, playing cards and drafting new talking points for Democrats to trot out on the trail.

"He literally sat down with a yellow legal pad," said McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, adding that Clinton told him: "Make sure, Terry, you get these talking points out to every candidate."

It was then, McAuliffe said, that Clinton confided that he has been frustrated with the Democrats' message.

"He is just baffled and bewildered about why there has not been a more coherent message talking about what the party has done, why we allowed ourselves to become human pinatas," McAuliffe said. "I think he is agitated that Democrats haven't put their best foot forward in explaining to the American public what they've actually done."

Student-loan policy

Clinton reserves time near the end of his speeches to talk about student-loan policy change, an Obama accomplishment he says isn't getting its due on the campaign trail. Clinton bemoans that the United States has fallen from first to ninth in the world in the percentage of adults with a four-year college degree - because too many students drop out for fear that they can't repay their loans.

Democrats overhauled student-loan policy to cap monthly repayments at 10 percent of discretionary income - a law Clinton says Republicans want to repeal.

"Do you know how many working families there are where people go home at night now, men and women and the children they love better than life, and they're sick with worry, they think they'll never be able to send their kids to college?" Clinton said in Everett.

"Oh, yes, you will," Clinton continued. "Do not let this bill be repealed. If the young people of America show up, we will vote for the future and the bill will be secured. That's why you've got to vote for Patty Murray. These are real choices here - real, serious choices."

Clinton, taking time off from running his global charitable foundation, is in the midst of a two-week swing that has taken him from the Mississippi Delta to the Pacific Northwest and seemingly everywhere in between. It took him across California, where he put a rivalries aside to join hands with Jerry Brown, running to reclaim his old job as governor. Aides said Clinton might return to the road next week to visit the battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Some assume Democratic leaders in Washington are orchestrating Clinton's campaign activities, but he is deployed by no one but himself.

Democratic candidates of all stripes are funneling requests and seeking advice through his top aide, Douglas Band. Clinton prioritizes politicians who helped his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her 2008 presidential campaign. (As secretary of state, she is banned from political activity.) He also has paid special care to loyal friends such as Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), who, despite running a distant third in his Senate race, has drawn Clinton for more than a half-dozen visits, most recently this week.

The White House and congressional leaders do not coach him on what to say. Clinton does not read from a prompter and only rarely refers to his notes at the lectern. He gives no interviews with local or national reporters and on most days races in his motorcade from airport to rally to airport again.

Clinton speaks infrequently with the candidates - in some cases not at all before showing up for an event. Clinton always has been a voracious consumer of news, especially political news, and aides say he stays up to speed on their races.

This is evident in his speeches. He devotes a substantial portion to the local issues defining specific races. In Washington state, he mused repeatedly about a Boeing tanker deal. In New Mexico, he riffed at length about water use and encroachment from neighboring Texas.

At each stop, Clinton waxes nostalgic, as if he were revisiting an old haunt. At San Jose State: "In 1992, when I ran for president the first time, the best rally we had in all of California was here at San Jose State." In New Mexico: "When you voted for me twice, I got to know this state and know its people, and know the unique heart and soul and dreams, and know the way you accommodate all this diversity and build a common sense of humanity here. It means something to me. You're special to America."

After every speech, he flings off his suit jacket and works the crowd. He wraps his arms around folks and listens for cues about what ails America. Clinton's speeches are bookended by thumping tunes - a Motown classic in Everett, a Kanye West hit at San Jose State's arena, a mariachi folk song in Espanola.

"I keep thinking I'm too old for this," Clinton quipped to a crowd of 5,000 as the sun set behind him over the open-air Plaza de Espanola at a rally for New Mexico gubernatorial candidate Diane Denish.

"No! No! No!" the crowd cried out.

"Then I got out here and started stirring around and realized a lot of people were mad and even more confused, and I didn't want it on my conscience," Clinton said. "So I sort of loaded up and started strolling around."

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