Bill Clinton Draws Fire for Attacking Hillary's Rivals Campaigning for his wife, Bill Clinton has been fulfilling the job long represented by a running mate — attacking the opposition and being a controversial lightning rod. While he remains popular with the Democratic rank and file, some also find his behavior unseemly for an ex-president.
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Bill Clinton Draws Fire for Attacking Hillary's Rivals

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Bill Clinton Draws Fire for Attacking Hillary's Rivals

Bill Clinton Draws Fire for Attacking Hillary's Rivals

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The presidential campaign trail has featured famously one former president, Bill Clinton. He has campaigned with his wife. He's campaigning without her. He has spoken to adoring crowds of Democrats. He has delivered red-faced rants to reporters. The Clintons are increasingly being seen and covered as a pair, as though the two of them are running for president.

NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports it's not always clear if that's a good thing or a bad thing for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

MARA LIASSON: The toughest tag team in American politics is on the field in full force. This time, Hillary Clinton is the candidate; Bill Clinton is the attack dog. And sometimes he's not just attacking her opponents. Here he is on Wednesday lacerating a reporter who asked him about a lawsuit her supporters filed in Nevada. It objected to caucus rules they believed favored members of a union who had just endorsed Barack Obama.

President BILL CLINTON: Don't be accusatory of me. I had nothing to do with this lawsuit. Some people in Nevada are old fashioned. They think the rules should be the same for everybody, and the vote - everybody's vote should count the same. I had nothing to do with that lawsuit, and you know it.

Mr. MARK MATTHEWS (Reporter, ABC7): But the timing of the lawsuit with the endorsement does look to some people like…

Pres. CLINTON: Do you believe…

Mr. MATTHEWS: …now that they understand the endorsement, they want to change the rules. Your position is that it should be easier for them to vote than for anybody else who works in the afternoon? Your position is their vote should count five times as much? Is that right?

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton said she was neutral on the lawsuit, but Bill Clinton was anything but. In the end, a judge ruled against the Clinton supporters who brought the suit. This was just the latest Bill Clinton tirade. The former president has compared criticism of his wife to Republican swift-boat attacks. He has called Barack Obama's position on Iraq a fairytale, and the prospect of an Obama presidency a roll of the dice. He has excoriated the media for not investigating Obama's past. Sally Bedell Smith, who has written a book about the Clintons, is not surprised by the former president's intense, often emotional, role in the campaign.

Ms. SALLY BEDELL SMITH (Author, "For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years"): Since Hillary's first race for the Senate in 2000, he has been very immersed in her campaign in a way that they've almost become an extension of himself. And that phenomenon has become much more apparent in the past few months, this impulse to justify his own legacy. And at times, it's caused him real problems for his wife when he said, for example, that he had opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. And that was easily disproved within a matter of hours.

LIASSON: And Democratic strategist Anita Dunn thinks the former president's leading role in the attacks on Obama pose potential risks to his reputation.

Ms. ANITA DUNN (Democrat Political Strategist): I think that Bill Clinton always is concerned about his legacy. Clearly, his chief legacy that he would like to see would be Hillary Clinton being elected president. And he's fighting, as only he can, for that end. But a huge part of his legacy also was the extraordinary affection and respect that African-Americans had for him. And he does run a risk with that huge part of the Democratic base if he continue his personal attacks on Barack Obama in this way. Short-term gain, long-term pain.

LIASSON: On the whole, Democrats agree that Bill Clinton is a net asset for his wife. He's a surrogate like no other. Someone who's every word gets maximum media coverage. And Democrats say his attacks on Obama worked in New Hampshire by helping to crowd out Obama's message. It wasn't pretty, said one, but it did help her win. Some Democratic strategists, like Steve McMahon, worry that the attacks could cause serious rifts inside the Democratic Party, a potential problem for a general election.

Mr. STEVE MCMAHON (Democrat Media Consultant and Strategic Advisor): The campaign that Senator Clinton and President Clinton are engaged in right now is a campaign designed to raise doubts about Barack Obama to the extent that that's successful in the short-term. I think it puts them in a position where in a long-term they may do damage if she is the nominee, and they're trying to get the Barack Obama lover back into the fold to support Hillary Clinton as vigorously as they'll need to in November for her to be successful. It's a very tough position to be in.

LIASSON: And then, says Sally Bedell Smith, there's the famous Bill Clinton temper.

Ms. SMITH: One danger for them is that these displays of anger recall a lot of that turbulence from the '90s when they were irate against their enemies. And if going forward, the nation wants to try and repair those sorts of rifts, it's not a reminder that's very helpful.

LIASSON: Barack Obama only mentions these issues obliquely, saying, he doesn't want to re-fight the battles of the '90s. But in the general election, if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, Republicans won't hesitate to be very specific.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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