-- One way to keep a supporting actor from stealing the show is to keep him squirreled away on the sidelines. So it is that the Clintons, who arrived for the Democratic convention late Sunday morning, have agreed to exile themselves to a hotel in Cambridge, so they won't "overshadow" the Kerrys, a few local papers have reported.

Unfortunately, Cambridge is only a 10-minute cab ride away, and former presidents don't spend too much time in their hotel rooms. So the strategy turns out to be a case of wishful thinking, something like hoping that if only the Yankees would get out of the way and hang out in Newark, everyone in New York could get really psyched up about the Mets.

In this case, it turns out to have had the opposite effect. Bill and Hillary Clinton are staying at the Charles Hotel, owned by developer Richard Friedman, the one who used to lend them his secluded compound on Martha's Vineyard. Their presence has attracted Madeleine Albright to the hotel, as well as Ben Affleck and Danny Glover, the real stars of the convention. (Barbra Streisand was supposed to come but had to start shooting her new movie.)

So now Clinton finds himself in a position he could not have imagined when he was a chubby kid in Arkansas: at the center of cool.

For Clinton this convention is like the best high school reunion ever: all of his old friends gathered in one place, throwing him parties (Elaine and Jerry Schuster and hundreds of admirers), lots of people who'll want to sit around until long after midnight and hash over the good old days, down to the last delicious detail: "It was unbelievable!" he reminisced to a woman who came to his book signing Sunday afternoon at a Boston Barnes & Noble. "In the Illinois primary's 14 southernmost counties, I got 70 percent of the vote!"

But unfortunately he'll have to leave the party early: Monday night he'll give the convention's opening speech, where he plans to "make my case for Kerry and the decision before the American people," he said. Then Tuesday morning he splits, and heads back to New York.

Would he overshadow Kerry at the convention?

"No. I'm gonna give a talk and get out of town."

"We absolutely welcome President Clinton and Senator Clinton," said Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. "He presided over the nation's longest economic boom. The Clintons are both national leaders with an important message to deliver."

But privately, Democrats close to Kerry say they've reached an understanding: Clinton knows he's a larger-than-life figure, and he knows this is John Kerry's moment, so he has agreed to stay out of the way.

This leaves Clinton in somewhat of a split-personality role: On the one hand he's like Ronald Reagan in 1988, says Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser, "the man who redefined the party, who brought Democrats out of the wilderness." On the other, he's a one-man NGO, as Clinton has been calling himself, a freelance Democrat in town to sign some books.

The sure sign that you're at the center of cool is if Jesse Jackson magically appears at your side at the most opportune moments. Halfway through the Clinton book-signing there he was, the reverend and an entourage of 10, sweeping past a line of thousands waiting to have their books signed, shaking hands, posing for the cameras.

At the signing, Clinton bristled when pressed on whether Kerry would ask him to campaign for him.

"I don't know," he said. "It doesn't matter to me. You know all that matters to me is whether he wins or not."

"I don't care," he continued, and pointed out that he has done an event for Kerry in Nevada and some in New York. "I'll do whatever he wants me to do."

Clinton rejected the whole notion of a Kerry charisma deficit. Kerry won handily against a strong field of primary contenders, he pointed out. "And after all we've been through after 9/11, his strong, solid demeanor is something the American people might be looking for," he said. "So I feel good about the way he relates to the voters and I think we'll see that in November."

But to those enamored of Clinton, voting for Kerry has an eat-your-spinach quality to it. Ask about Clinton and they light up like they're talking about their best friend. Ask about Kerry and they lapse into formalities.

"Bill Clinton is just a person who people listen to; he relates to all levels of people," said Sandra Wise, in town from Ohio. "That's why I waited five hours in line for him to sign my book."

What about Kerry?

"That's one thing I think Kerry lacks, is that personality thing, the relating-to-people thing," said Wise, who was nonetheless wearing a Kerry hat and was festooned with Kerry buttons. "But he's had 20 years in the Senate and served his country and served it well."

Sunday night, the Clintons were feted by the Schusters at the State Room, overlooking the harbor. Signs of their iconic status abounded. Video monitors displayed the former president's greatest hits: young Bill in a bow tie, Clinton playing the sax on Arsenio Hall's show, Clinton engulfed by crowds. Janet Reno, Jerry Brown, Joe Klein and Terry McAuliffe were there. Al and Tipper Gore, too. The cocktails napkins read: "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" and "Let's Celebrate the Clintons." And then one for the future: Hillary T-shirts by designer Marc Jacobs, with a Warholesque silkscreen of the former first lady, selling for $55, to benefit her 2006 Senate campaign.

Before a crowd that looked more than double the expected 500, Hillary Clinton introduced her husband as "the great, great president we all love."

"When Jerry and Elaine said they were going to hold in this party in my honor or whatever," he said, "I felt sort of old and pickled and half-dead, but you all are having such a great time, it changed my mind."

Clinton recounted a conversation he'd had with Tom Brokaw earlier in the day. The NBC News anchor had asked him, "Don't you really wish it was you up there accepting the nomination?" And Clinton said no, "I like being part of the movement of a lifetime."

This time around Clinton's position is less precarious at least than it was in 2000. Back then, the danger of overshadowing the nominee -- Al Gore -- was much higher, and emotions were much rawer. Clinton's grand sweeping final entrance through the convention hall, carried on all the networks, only alienated the two camps more.

"It's a huge contrast with 2000," said Ted Widmer, who was a sounding board for Clinton's book and now teaches at Maryland's Washington College. "Then he wasn't there very much at all. This time he absolutely should be going out, speaking especially to African Americans, to key southern states. He can speak in a way almost no one else can about Bush and the mistakes he's made as president."

Clinton has already started some of that; two of three interviews he's doing at the convention are with Black Entertainment Television and Univision.

But Jesse Jackson, echoing the party line, reined Clinton in.

"We are not looking for charismatic emancipation," he said, then bestowed on the new candidate the title of "Most Improved." John Kerry, he said, "is growing with the job."

Staff writer Richard Leiby contributed to this report.

Just a footnote? Former president Clinton, who vows not to step into John Kerry's convention spotlight, signs books in Boston.Jessica Cohen and Cristna Feith are among the fans waiting for Bill Clinton to sign books at a Boston Barnes & Noble.