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With Hillary sidelined this week, Bill steps in as campaign surrogate

Having a former president on standby is an unprecedented luxury for a White House candidate. It's also a reminder to voters that, when it comes to the Clintons, the couple is a package deal, for better or worse.

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    Former President Bill Clinton speaks while campaigning for his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, in North Las Vegas, Nev
    John Locher/AP
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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) — When Hillary Clinton was sidelined this week with pneumonia, her campaign didn't rush to cancel a busy slate of events out West. The presidential candidate's husband simply stepped in to take her place.

Former President Bill Clinton hobnobbed with wealthy donors at a pair of Beverly Hills fundraisers, including a $100,000-per-couple dinner at the home of designer Diane Von Furstenberg. He snapped selfies with fans during a surprise stop at a trendy coffee shop in Los Angeles. And he rallied supporters in swing state Nevada.

"I'm glad to have a chance to stand in for Hillary today," he told voters in Las Vegas on Wednesday. "She did it for me for a long time. It's about time I showed up and did it for her."

Having a former president on standby is an unprecedented luxury for a White House candidate. It's also a reminder to voters that, when it comes to the Clintons, the couple is a package deal, for better or worse.

That's been less overt in the 2016 campaign than in some of the Clintons' previous political endeavors, when they actively pitched themselves as a "two for the price of one" proposition. Other than a prime-time speech at the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton's general election schedule has been purposely low-key, reflecting the Clinton campaign's desire to keep him from overshadowing his wife or creating unnecessary distractions.

But those concerns became secondary this week. Hillary Clinton tried to campaign through a bout of pneumonia, but she was sidelined by her doctor after getting dehydrated and dizzy while attending a 9/11 memorial in New York on Sunday.

Campaign aides quickly called Bill Clinton's chief of staff to see if he could step in for a few days. The timing wasn't ideal. His schedule was packed with interviews and other events in New York ahead of next week's last-ever meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, a wing of the family's philanthropy.

But aides said he quickly agreed to clear his schedule and fly to California. He's been calling his wife multiple times a day to check on her health and report back on conversations with donors and other Democrats.

"She's married to the best surrogate in the world," said Jerry Crawford, an Iowa Democrat and longtime Clinton ally.

For all his political gifts, Bill Clinton has been an imperfect messenger on his wife's health this week. He volunteered in an interview that she's had episodes like this before and on Wednesday he said she had flu, not pneumonia. A spokesman said he misspoke and meant pneumonia, but such moments provide grist to conspiracy theorists who think Hillary Clinton is hiding health issues.

Hillary Clinton's aides have spent the general election warily waiting to see if Republican Donald Trump makes good on his promises to turn the former president's extramarital affairs into a campaign issue. Trump has steered clear of those issues in recent weeks, but she is still preparing for the possibility he could raise them in the upcoming presidential debates.

Republican Rick Tyler, who worked on Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential bid, said that if Trump does raise those issues, they will "fall on deaf ears."

"All those things have been litigated over and over again," Tyler said.

Hillary Clinton has an impressive stable of other surrogates on hand for the campaign's final stretch. President Barack Obama, whose favorability is on the rise in his final year in office, campaigned for her on Tuesday in Philadelphia. Vice President Joe Biden opened the week in North Carolina. Michelle Obama, the hugely popular first lady, will help rally voters in Virginia on Friday.

But it's Bill Clinton who is his wife's most dedicated supporter, and often her most complicated.

He speaks passionately about her advocacy for children and the underprivileged, and calls her "the best darn change-maker I've ever seen." He peppers his remarks with personal stories about their courtship in law school more than 40 years ago and their excitement over becoming grandparents. His campaign presence can often remind voters of the peace and prosperity that accompanied his eight years in office.

"Him and his family have been a big deal for our country," said Samuel Del Real, a 28-year-old who ran into the former president during his stop at a Los Angeles coffee shop Tuesday.

But voters also remember the scandals that plagued Clinton's tenure in the White House. While the former president has been more disciplined than during his wife's failed 2008 campaign, he still finds ways to create unwanted distractions, most notably when he met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the midst of the Justice Department's investigation into his wife's email practices. Lynch characterized the conversation as social, but acknowledged the meeting "cast a shadow" on the public's perception of the case.

The former president's possible role in a Hillary Clinton administration came under scrutiny this year when she suggested she would place her husband in charge of revitalizing the economy. Aides later had to stress there were no formal plans in place to do so.

Hillary Clinton planned to return to campaigning on Thursday in Greensboro, North Carolina. But Bill Clinton will be staying in the spotlight, at least for a few more days.

He'll spend next week in New York mingling with world leaders and celebrities at the annual CGI meetings. With the Clinton Foundation under election-year scrutiny, he's pledged that this year will mark the last CGI gathering, regardless of the outcome of the election.

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