DALLAS—Faced with the “Bill factor” in her campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton is following the political blueprint of candidate George W. Bush in dealing with an ex-president in the family.
Much as Bush did with his father in 2000, the Clinton camp is seeking to leverage Bill Clinton’s appeal with select voters while limiting joint appearances that might diminish the candidate.
“You never want your candidate overshadowed by anybody else on any level,” said Martin Frost, a former Dallas congressman and Democratic Party strategist. “Bill is such a charismatic figure that anybody can be overshadowed by him.”
As a result, Clinton strategists have dispatched the former Democratic president separately to fundraisers and events with the party faithful. Experts predict joint appearances will be carefully rationed.
Early in the 2000 campaign, political strategists for George W. Bush feared the father’s presence would underscore the son’s inexperience.
“We used President Bush 41 in targeted ways,” said former White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “Particularly since President Bush 43 wasn’t as well known on the national level, and it was important for him to establish his own credentials.”
Matthew Dowd, chief political strategist for the Bush reelection campaign, said standing next to an ex-president invites comparisons that can highlight a candidate’s weaknesses.
“The thing about the then-governor was how serious a guy is he? Is he a little goofy? Is he up to this?” said Dowd. “And you had this former president with this tremendous seriousness and a different personality.”
In a similar way, he said, when Bill and Hillary Clinton are paired on stage, she suffers by comparison.
“He has such a great ability to connect and make audiences feel at ease, and she doesn’t. So they have to be careful that his strength doesn’t highlight her weakness,” said Dowd.
Joint appearances can go awry, as on the eve of the 2000 New Hampshire primary when former President Bush caused a minor stir in referring to his son as “this boy.”
Last year, Bill Clinton inadvertently overshadowed his wife at the funeral for Martin Luther King’s widow. When the couple attended Selma’s annual celebration of the 1965 voting rights march this year, Hillary Clinton spoke, her husband did not.
Frost said President Clinton has a keen political mind, an ability to raise money and popularity with the base, particularly African-Americans who will be an important factor in a primary that includes Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
Analysts say President Clinton’s advantages are tempered by a reputation for being undisciplined, stemming from his affair with a White House intern, which could invite unfavorable publicity.
McClellan, who left the White House last year, said whatever their downside, both former presidents are overall assets.
“Certainly his father was a net plus,” McClellan said of the elder Bush. “He is someone who is viewed as an elder statesman, a person of unquestioned honor and integrity.
“And Bill Clinton is a significant plus for Hillary as well. He certainly has huge appeal among the Democratic base, and then in the general election, he can energize the base.”
Former President Bush had limited support among social conservatives but otherwise was popular with GOP voters. In some of the early primary states in 2000, Republicans said they didn’t know much about the Texas governor but supported him because they liked his father.
“That was a concern,” said Dowd. “By pairing them too much, you were saying vote for him because he’s the son as opposed to vote for him because of anything he’s done as governor.”
Former Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, a Clinton supporter, said the former First Lady and senator from New York doesn’t have that problem.
“I think probably when Hillary started running for the Senate eight years ago, there might have been some concern that Bill’s political skills might overwhelm her,” he said. “But Hillary has developed her own set of skills and can hold her own with any body, including Bill Clinton.”
Mauro has known the Clintons since 1972, when they worked together in Texas on George McGovern’s presidential race. He has worked on political campaigns for both of them.
“I’m almost amused that anybody could ever be concerned Bill Clinton overshadows Hillary,” he said. “As a friend, and as somebody who has spent lots and lots of hours everyplace from Scholz Garten to the White House in personal settings, they are absolute equals.”
In the White House, President George W. Bush has not sought out his father in any significant public way as part of his administration.
Speculation that President Clinton might be part of Hillary Clinton’s White House prompted a question at the recent Democratic debate in New Hampshire.
The candidates were asked how they might use President Clinton. Among the suggestions: Middle East envoy and United Nations secretary general.
Clinton said she might make her husband a “global ambassador” to foster ties with American allies in a post-Bush world.
Some Clinton supporters noted privately afterwards that President Clinton has been reluctant to cede center stage. They joked that such an assignment would assure he didn’t overshadow his wife by getting him out of Washington.
PLUS OR MINUS?
A look at the tradeoffs faced by George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton in involving their ex-president family members in a presidential run:
Involving Bill Clinton in 2008:
Popular with the Democratic base
Accomplished political strategist
Reputation as undisciplined from the Monica Lewinsky affair
Polarizing figure that energizes conservative voters
Powerful persona that can overshadow a candidate
Involving George H.W. Bush in 2000:
Popular with Republican voters
An effective, accomplished surrogate on international issues
Respected among political moderates who are important in close elections
Extensive portfolio can overshadow a candidate
Lukewarm support among GOP social conservatives
Unintentional lapses, for example a slip in which he called his son “my boy”