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Bill Clinton finds ex-president sweet spot

Former President Bill Clinton at Florida International University, Sept. 11, 2012 in Miami, as he campaigns for President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

MIAMI: Bill Clinton has found the ex-president sweet spot.

His popularity is the highest it's ever been. The public is longing for the flush economy he presided over. And President Barack Obama, once a political rival, needs Clinton's help to win re-election.

Sure, Clinton would still get attention for his humanitarian work or by simply being a former president. But this is the spotlight he wants - the final stretch of a tightly contested race for the White House.

"I believe with all my heart that a society that basically says, 'You're on your own' is never going to be as successful in a highly competitive and interdependent world as a society that says, 'We don't have a person to waste,'" Clinton said Tuesday, kicking off back-to-back days of campaigning in Florida on Obama's behalf.

Clinton's words were as much about backing the president as they were about defending his own economic vision.

That's the nature of the freshly minted political alliance between Obama and Clinton - one that comes with risks for both men.

Clinton risks denting his sky-high favorability ratings by jumping back into the political fray. He learned that lesson in 2008 when he campaigned for wife Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary and came across at times as angry and out of touch with the current political landscape.

Some Democrats fear the popular Clinton could overshadow Obama. A new Pew Research Center poll found that 29 percent of those surveyed said Clinton's speech at last week's Democratic National Convention was the highlight of the party gathering, while just 16 percent called Obama's speech the highlight.

Clinton won praise after his convention speech for delivering a forceful defense of the president's economic policies and the need for him to serve a second term. But it revived a nagging frustration among Democrats who can't understand why Obama hasn't been able to make that case more clearly himself.

"Sometimes Obama speaks at a level that is only for the college-educated," said Ray Vera, a Florida Democrat. Vera said Clinton's convention speech compelled him to come see the former president speak Tuesday at an Obama campaign rally in Miami.

Unlike the current president, Vera said Clinton speaks "with such calm and confidence" and in ways the average person can understand.

Obama himself joked this week that someone recommended he name Clinton "secretary of explaining stuff."

The president's aides either dismiss the risks that come with joining forces with Clinton or say they're worth taking

With Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at its disposal, the president's campaign now has three popular and persuasive surrogates who can fan out across battleground states. And Clinton shines with groups Obama sometimes struggles to connect with, particularly working-class whites and older voters.

In a true sign of Clinton's popularity, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has decided not to try to fight against the former president. Instead, he's trying to use him to highlight for voters what Obama is lacking.

"I think he really did elevate the Democrat convention in a lot of ways," Romney said Sunday on NBC television's "Meet the Press." ''And, frankly, the contrast may not have been as attractive as Barack Obama might have preferred if he were choosing who'd go before him and who'd go after."

Unlike Obama, Romney can't call on his party's last occupant of the White House in this election. President George W. Bush remains a polarizing figure and Romney is seeking to distance himself from many of Bush's policies, both foreign and domestic. Bush didn't attend the Republican convention and isn't expected to have any role in the fall campaign.

Clinton, on the other hand, is expected to campaign for Obama frequently in key tossup states between now and November. He's likely to return to Florida again and is also expected to campaign in Ohio, Virginia and Iowa.

Obama's team has also put Clinton, a prolific fundraiser, to work helping them close their money gap with Romney. Obama and Clinton have teamed up for two campaign fundraisers, and the former president is also helping Priorities USA Action, the struggling Obama super political action committee, raise funds.

It's also something of a turnaround for Clinton, who left office with positive approval ratings for his handling of the presidency but negative ones for his personal character.

In a January 2001 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, 65 percent of Americans said they approved of the way Clinton was handling "his job as president," while just 41 percent said that they approved "of Clinton as a person."

Fast-forward to the present. A Gallup poll released last week showed Clinton was viewed favorably by 69 percent of Americans, including 43 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of independents. That's his highest favorability rating in polls back to 1993.

"It's an amazing alignment of scenarios," Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House staffer, said of his old boss' resurgence.

Clinton, of course, has his own motivations for his full-throated support of Obama's campaign. Those close to him say it's no secret he'd like to help pave the way for another presidential run for his wife, now Obama's secretary of state, in 2016.

 

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