By now, Bill Clinton has developed a pretty thick skin. But when people say his wife wouldn't be running for US Senate except for the fact that she's first lady, well, he confesses, "that really steams me."
"Let me tell you something," the president lectured donors at a fundraiser for his wife's campaign last month. "If she hadn't married me so long ago, and chosen to live a life of volunteer public service, she could have been doing this 20, 25 years ago."
Of all the parts he is playing in Hillary Rodham Clinton's New York campaign, his role as political defender is one of the most prominent - and most ironic. For years, Mrs. Clinton defended her husband from critics; now, in a dramatic role-reversal, it's falling to Mr. Clinton to deflect criticism of her as she tries to become the first first lady elected to national office.
His spirited defense of his wife last month is just one example of the president's behind-the-scenes but attentive involvement in her Senate bid. Not only is he vigorously shaking the money tree on her behalf (he's headlined more than two dozen fundraisers), he's also her daily sounding board, speech editor, and debate coach. Nor does he hesitate to phone her senior staff with questions about strategy - or warnings that her schedule is packed so tightly it's likely to induce fatigue-related mistakes.
"He's a tremendous asset," says Helen Desfosses, a Democrat and city council president in Albany, N.Y. "If I could get political advice from Bill Clinton, I'd take it."
Still, the president and Mrs. Clinton's campaign play down his involvement, to keep the spotlight on the candidate herself and to demonstrate that she thinks for herself. They also want to avoid dredging up images of scandal and marriage troubles. "The two together conjure up negative feelings about their relationship," says New York pollster John Zogby. "What she doesn't need at this point is a family photo album."
Officials at Hillary 2000 won't even discuss her husband's role. "I won't talk about that," says Ann Lewis, a former counselor to the president who now handles important constituencies for Mrs. Clinton's Senate campaign.
Clinton himself says he has no "organized" role in her campaign. "I bend over backwards not to get too involved," he demurred in a Washington Post interview released by the White House last month.
Still, Clinton knows his presidential legacy may be judged, in part, on the election successes of his proteges - namely, Al Gore and Mrs. Clinton. And it's probably impossible for Clinton -known for his political instincts and zest for politics - to stay out of his spouse's campaign.
While the president sometimes goes a week or 10 days with no communication with her campaign staff, he talks to the one person who counts at least once a day. The Clintons review how the campaign is unfolding, and "I give her my best thoughts," he says.
One of those best thoughts led to the hiring of Mark Penn, the president's pollster for many years. It has been Mr. Penn's strategy to persistently grind down Mrs. Clinton's negative ratings with plain, hard work - visiting every county in New York, sticking to the issues. It was the same strategy that helped save the president from impeachment, and it may be what is helping Mrs. Clinton now. Polls show she is currently leading her opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio (R), by as many as 7 percentage points.
One of the president's lesser thoughts, perhaps, was his very public defense of her last summer. From the midst of a news blackout at the Camp David Mideast peace talks, he called New York publisher Mortimer Zuckerman to deny a report that his wife had made a stinging anti-Semitic slur 26 years ago. In retrospect, he later said, "it may not have been the right thing to do, because all it did was sort of give more visibility to a charge that was hokum."
The president is still rising to his wife's defense, but now he's using the lower-profile venue of fundraisers to try to slay generic Hillary criticisms. To charges that she's won the nomination only because she's first lady, he answers that she's motivated by a lifelong desire to be an advocate for families and children. To charges that she has a thin resume, he counters that she was actually very involved in White House policy. To insinuations that she's a cold, calculating powermonger, he offers a portrait of her as a "futurist" with a unique combination of "mind and heart."
When the president speaks to donors, he talks frankly about the political role reversal in his marriage. The first time his wife debated Mr. Lazio, "I was absolutely a nervous wreck," he says. "I realize now what she went through all those years watching me: 'Is he going to fall over, is he going to smile? Should he slug back, should he just keep smiling?' "
ULTIMATELY, of course, his comments are designed to bring in cash. In his self-described role as cheerleader-in-chief, he has drummed up about $5.5 million at Hillary-related events, traveling from California to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania to Florida. Since both Senate candidates agreed to ban soft money from their campaigns - leaving Mrs. Clinton at a financial disadvantage - "fundraising has got to be the issue," says Ms. Desfosses in Albany.
Equally important, however, will be getting out the vote. Political observers expect the president to be deployed to rally key constituencies such as African-Americans, unions, Jews, and suburban voters. The president is well regarded in New York, easily carrying the state in 1996. "If all he does is get out the vote, it will be a big plus," says Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "She needs a big turnout."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society