Monday, July 26, 2004

But first, Bill and Hillary

Clintons' task: Fire up crowd, yield spotlight

By Terence Hunt
The Associated Press

BOSTON - It's John Kerry's convention, but Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton are stealing his opening-night thunder.

Forceful, charismatic and controversial, the Clintons are the most sought-after stars in the Democratic Party, reminders of White House glory days and an administration willing to wage fierce fights with Republicans.

Tonight, the Clintons will give prime-time speeches to rouse Democrats and lure undecided voters for the tough race against President Bush.

The only problem is that Kerry may suffer by comparison, making Democrats wistful for a more dynamic candidate, one who doesn't have to struggle so hard to connect with voters.

"Nobody makes the case for the Democratic agenda better than Bill and Hillary Clinton," said Democratic strategist Bruce Reed, who was domestic-affairs adviser in the Clinton White House. "They've brought the house down at past conventions and in Boston they'll no doubt do the same."

Where Bill Clinton is eloquent, Kerry is halting. Where Hillary Rodham Clinton is fiery, Kerry is stiff.

Even President Bush recently described former President Clinton as a man of "incredible energy and great personal appeal."

By contrast, The Economist magazine described Kerry as "the political equivalent of Valium."

"Nobody doubts that he's intelligent, but where's the energy and the passion?" said Margaret Thompson, a political scientist and historian at Syracuse University.

The Clintons have a delicate assignment tonight: Be good but don't steal the show. Deliver inspiring speeches but don't be hard-edged. Motivate voters but don't make it too memorable.

After all, it's Kerry's convention.

"They're not going to overshadow Kerry," said Harold Ickes, a leading Democratic fund-raiser and Clinton's former deputy chief of staff. "Kerry is the nominee of the party. He's running for president."

Ickes acknowledges that Clinton will have to balance his remarks, rallying Democrats without scaring off people still on the fence.

"There's nobody better to walk that tight wire, as we know, than Bill Clinton," Ickes said. "He'll understand the modulation that he has to hit in terms of his role in this campaign."

The former president is still popular, with an approval rating in the low 60s - about the same as when he left office.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, serving her first term in the Senate, is a front-runner among Democrats for the next presidential race if Kerry fails this time. Her supporters were outraged when she was omitted from the original lineup of convention speakers. She was quickly added to speak and introduce her husband.

Her speech will be watched closely for hints about her political ambitions.

Leading Democrats say the senator will work unstintingly for Kerry's election.

"Would you know it if she didn't? You could tell right away," said former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Some people think Sen. Clinton's presence with her husband also will help deal with some of his political baggage.

Moreover, Thompson said, some people regard Sen. Clinton as too strong a woman, and her convention assignment of introducing her husband "is a very traditional kind of role for a woman to play."

Four years ago, Clinton and his wife gave the opening-night speeches at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles and then successfully got out of the way for Al Gore to take center stage. Like Kerry, Gore always paled by comparison with the Clintons but that did not mar his convention.

Significantly, Kerry will speak three nights after the Clintons' remarks, reducing chances of one-to-one comparisons.

Tonight's lineup

Tonight's highlights: former President Jimmy Carter, former Vice President Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton (who'll be introduced by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton).

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