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Bill Clinton unleashed: Democrats let the Big Dog hunt

Can the Big Dog save the one they call a dog?

Armed with a sack of football metaphors and the cool confidence of a proven winner, Bill Clinton is stumping for Democrats at such a fevered pace you'd think Hillary herself was in the White House.

Instead, the former Democratic president is out campaigning to protect the congressional majorities of the current one, Barack Obama, who snatched the party's 2008 presidential nomination from his wife's hands.

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If Mr. Obama bemoans Republicans who "talk about me like a dog," Mr. Clinton has become this President's best line of defence against GOP charges that Democrats don't know how to manage taxpayers' money.

It helps that "Bubba" is the country's most popular politician - practising and non-practising combined - and serves to remind Americans of better Democratic days when incomes were rising and budgets balanced.

Few believe the White House sought Mr. Clinton's input. The West Wing is naturally wary of an embattled President being shown up by Mr. Clinton's star power. Mr. Obama gets derided as Spock. But even former Republican Senate leader Trent Lott now calls Mr. Clinton "a good old boy." Then there is the awkward issue of Hillary Clinton's suspected desire - in spite of her denials - to try again for the top job.

But with Democrats staring disaster in the face in the Nov. 2 midterm elections, no one in the White House is publicly discouraging Mr. Clinton.

"They'll take what they can get," explained Antonio de Velasco, a communications professor at the University of Memphis who has written a book on Clintonian rhetoric. "Mr. Clinton offers a living, breathing picture of a successful Democratic president. He is also able to offer a certain critique of the far right that Mr. Obama still has a hard time with."

Mr. Clinton has taken full-time to the campaign trail, visiting 10 states in the past week alone. He draws capacity crowds who seem to come more for a glimpse of him than for the candidate he's come to promote.

"He's only the second person I ever wanted to see," Carol Becht said of Mr. Clinton, as she waited Tuesday outside the University of South Florida St. Petersburg gymnasium. "The first was Elvis. I saw him five times."

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Inside, Mr. Clinton pleaded with wavering Democrats to vote for Kendrick Meek, who is currently running third in a three-way race for Florida's open Senate seat.

"When something is really important to us - like football - we care about the facts, don't we?" Mr. Clinton told the crowd, explaining that the measures taken by the Obama administration to heal the economy will take time to work. "Realize we are in the gap."

It is doubtful even Mr. Clinton's vaunted skills of persuasion can move enough voters between now and Nov. 2 to put Mr. Meek over the top. Florida Democrats are about evenly divided between their flag-bearer, Mr. Meek, and Governor Charlie Crist, who quit the Republican Party to run for the Senate as an independent. That split favours GOP nominee Marco Rubio.

"He's just trying to get all the Democrats to come home," University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett said of Mr. Meek. "And he really thinks Mr. Clinton can help him with that."

Mr. Clinton's visit came too late for Ms. Becht, however. The 64-year-old retired school librarian conceded she had taken advantage of early voting, which began Monday in Florida, to cast a ballot for Mr. Crist.

In closer two-way races, such as the Senate contests in Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado and California, Mr. Clinton might have more influence on the outcome. But there is more going on here than mere vote-getting.

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Almost without exception, the candidates Mr. Clinton defends were diehard supporters of his wife's presidential bid. As Secretary of State, protocol prohibits Ms. Clinton from campaigning for them now. But Mr. Clinton can help pro-Hillary candidates attract voters - and, more important, donors - and keep the embers of her presidential dream flickering for 2016.

Mr. Clinton may also help his wife's case by reminding Americans of the record of his presidency, when job growth far exceeded gains made during the combined 20 years of Republican leadership before and after it. When Mr. Clinton left office, the budget was in surplus and the federal government had shrunk to its smallest size since the Eisenhower era.

That is a comforting memory for Democrats now. It suggests that, even if the party gets whipped on Nov. 2, Mr. Obama's presidency need not be doomed. After all, Mr. Clinton miserably failed his first midterm test; Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in 1994.

"They tried to do to me what they're trying to do the President now," Mr. Clinton warned. "It's really hard for me to take it with a straight face when Republicans say they're so upset about deficits. … If they had just kept my budget, we'd be out of debt by 2015."

Mr. Obama, of course, has a far tougher row to hoe. The budget hole he inherited is far deeper, the employment picture far grimmer than anything Mr. Clinton experienced. Besides, in 1994, the unemployment rate was a comparatively healthy 5.6 per cent and Mr. Clinton still took a drubbing.

"I don't think anybody would suggest Bill Clinton wasn't a good communicator or was somebody who couldn't connect with the American people or didn't show empathy," Mr. Obama told The New York Times on Sunday.

It was a jab at those who blame Democratic difficulties on this President's failure to emote. No amount of people skills, Mr. Obama seemed to be saying, can shield Democrats from the dire reality. The jobless rate now stands at 9.6 per cent. The budget deficit, at $1.3-trillion (U.S.), remains near a postwar high.

This economy is a dog that has American voters baring their teeth. Were he on the ballot, even the Big Dog himself would likely get bitten.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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