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Bill Clinton Hopes to Make Magic on the Campaign Trail

By November, Bill Clinton’s footprint will have been firmly imprinted on the collective stump of this election cycle.

The former president is the most sought-after surrogate in the Democratic Party – possibly more so than President Barack Obama – and he has been bombarded with requests to campaign on behalf of candidates across the country. Even Obama appears to have pinned his prospects in part on the Clinton magic. Clinton, who has made re-electing the president a top priority, is scheduled to deliver a prime-time speech on the second night of the Democratic National Convention and is expected to appear on Obama’s behalf in battleground states.

“He is such a strong figure in terms of delivering that message, that any place that a Democrat is in a swing area, he is a good messenger,” Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said. “He’s probably the best messenger of either party, in terms of being seen as credible.”

Clinton has said that he will do whatever is asked to get Obama re-elected. So far that’s largely included headlining fundraisers for the Obama campaign, including one in Minneapolis on Aug. 4, three in New York in June and one in April at the McLean, Va., home of former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

In the span of a week, Clinton will have attended three New York fundraisers, including last Thursday for Florida state Senate candidate and former Clinton adviser Nancy Soderberg. On Wednesday, he’ll help raise money for Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) and for Priorities USA, a super PAC set up to support Obama.

Fundraising is vital to keep the Obama machine churning, but the president could also use Clinton’s help on the ground in a landscape less favorable to the party than in 2008. Several Democratic strategists described the former president as a calming influence on the electorate and a reminder of the possibility of better economic times – something that can help both Obama and downballot Democratic incumbents and challengers.

“People still are nostalgic about the way he comes across, in the sense of having a common touch, believing that there’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. “He’s seen as the eternal optimist who is still in touch.”

Voters’ favorable opinion of Clinton, measured by Gallup last month at 66 percent, hasn’t been this high since he took office in 1993. His personal popularity has ebbed and flowed since leaving the White House in January 2001 but has been on a positive trajectory over the last four years – since the 2008 presidential primaries and the economic collapse.

Lake said Clinton’s appeal stretches across the party’s big-tent spectrum and is based on three things: Clinton is seen as the happy warrior from better times, as a strong leader with economic credentials and as part of a very well-liked family, including his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton (Obama’s secretary of state), and daughter, Chelsea. The Clinton brand, Lake said, is still strong with female voters, independents, the party base, swing voters, and even white, blue-collar Democrats, with whom the party is having trouble connecting.

If this rubs off on Obama, it will benefit him in many swing states, including Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Virginia. “He’s a huge asset everywhere he goes,” Lake said.

Clinton has been active in Democratic primaries this year, doling out endorsements and recording robocalls to past supporters of himself or his wife. He’s had no qualms about wading into Member-vs.-Member races, including in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and has already appeared with Democratic Senate candidates in Nevada and North Dakota.

Clinton stepped into the Wisconsin governor recall in June, attending a rally for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. He’s also attended primary rallies for Pennsylvania attorney general candidate Kathleen Kane, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) and Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), who defeated Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.).

The former president was in Nashua, N.H., on July 25 for a rally with gubernatorial candidate Maggie Hassan, then attended a fundraiser two days later in Washington, D.C., for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). He was in Orlando, Fla., on Aug. 2 for his third Sunshine State fundraiser of the cycle on behalf of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

But for all the good will a Clinton endorsement or appearance can offer, it won’t cancel out larger election trends or candidate quality.

He was active in the final months of 2010 for a mixed bag of winning and losing candidates amid a wave election cycle in which Republicans netted 63 House seats and cut deeply into Democrats’ Senate majority. In 2009, Clinton went to bat in Virginia for McAuliffe in the gubernatorial primary, then in the general election for the Democratic nominee, Creigh Deeds, both of whom lost.

“Endorsements don’t win elections,” Republican pollster Glen Bolger said. “The value of endorsements is to cause voters to take a look at the endorsed candidate a little more closely. Given the Obama economy, a Clinton endorsement, reminding voters of better economic days, will have the effect of causing voters to give a look. Some Democrats will measure up to that closer look, while others will not.”

Democratic pollster John Anzalone said Clinton “speaks the American people’s language” and can connect in ways few other politicians from either party can.

“Voters always felt a personal attachment to Clinton because he came from blue-collar roots, was smart and worked hard to get where he is and showed the human frailty in his life that many people experience in different forms,” Anzalone said. “But in the end, he even came through that.”