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Bill Clinton on the campaign trail: stomping for Hillary

Bill Clinton
REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Former President Bill Clinton campaigning in Las Vegas last week.

Traditionally in presidential politics, a party’s nominee waits until the convention to pick a vice president, who is then set upon the campaign trail to eviscerate the opposition.

But Hillary Rodham Clinton already has a running mate, a junkyard dog named POTUS whose snarls at rivals and reporters can only be described as Cheneyesque. Bill Clinton won’t be on the ballot, but by kicking up doubts about Barack Obama’s Iraq War opposition or the efficacy of Nevada caucus procedures, he kept Obama on the defensive while his wife walked off with a state-delegate win this weekend. (There is something just a bit delicious about Obama backers touting their projected one-national-delegate margin — now it’s OK to lose the popular vote and win the election?)

Meanwhile, the big news on the Republican side was the Huckabust in South Carolina. The other Man from Hope’s three-point loss to John McCain also has vice-presidential dimensions; listen to his concession speech and tell me it isn’t a mash note from an eager No. 2. Mitt Romney won a Nevada walkover, earning more delegates, but fewer headlines, than McCain in South Carolina.

On the Donkey Party side, the storyline from here on out is simple: if Obama can’t win Democratic votes, Hillary Clinton is your nominee. While Nevada’s race-based voting blocs got the headlines, the more penetrating entrance-poll number is this: Clinton triumphed 51 percent to 39 percent among self-identified Democrats, as opposed to independents who could also caucus. It was Clinton’s second straight double-digit triumph after Obama’s one-point margin among Iowa Democrats. Of the 21 Super Tuesday (Feb. 5) states, 12 close their contests to non-Democrats.

Looking for a voice
Obama — who has run an airy, hope-infused general election campaign — hasn’t found his voice among the Democratic base. That’s what makes the Bill Clinton’s deployment so brilliant. On the issues, Obama’s biggest selling point is his opposition to the war; Bill Clinton has labored mightily to turn the Illinois senator’s record of war funding into the moral equivalent of Hillary’s unapologetic pro-war vote.

Sub rosa, Obama’s appeal is that he’s not a serial exaggerator; unfortunately, the former president has already stepped in it a few times. For example, Clinton made an accurate claim when he highlighted Obama’s repeated Senate funding votes; however, he went on to assert that Obama promised not to support war funding in his famous 2002 anti-war speech; Obama never made such a pledge. In Vegas, Clinton alleged that at-large casino caucuses held at the behest of a pro-Obama unions had “five times” the votes of other gatherings, a claim effectively debunked by the Las Vegas Sun and the reporter who prompted Clinton’s claim.

By Sunday, one story line had Democratic leaders telling a former president to, well, shut up. We say, fat chance.

One final note about Nevada: of the first four Democratic contests, it is the only one with a substantial bloc of Latino voters. They went 64-26 for Clinton; an equal-sized bloc of African-American voters went 83-14 for Obama, which bodes well for South Carolina’s Democratic primary this Saturday. Another number that didn’t get enough pub: white folks went 52-34 for Clinton. The final data point: 59 percent of Nevada voters were women, a staggeringly high percentage even by Mommy Party standards.

The Thompson factor
As for Republicans in South Carolina, Fred Thompson was the key man, even if the cornpone conservative only finished a weak third there. Although Thompson’s flameout has been visible for weeks, it’s my belief that he stayed in the race post-Iowa to limit Huckabee’s votes and help his buddy McCain. In his heart, Thompson is a non-frothing McCain Republican (famously supporting the McCain-Feingold campaign finance limits), jumping into the race only when the Arizona senator cratered on immigration. Despite their affinity, Thompson has played a hard-core conservative on the trail — originally as the obvious path to the presidency, but now a way to shave the Huckster’s bloc.

And the Huckabee folks know it. According to former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, a Huck man: “One thing about Fred; I love Fred, but Fred’s not stupid….I don’t think he had any intention in South Carolina but to hurt Mike Huckabee…. Had Fred Thompson not been in the race, this would have been an overwhelming, dynamic victory for Mike Huckabee.” Slate’s John Dickerson, via CNN’s John King, concurs.

If the thesis is true, does Thompson stay in the race to peel off votes that might otherwise go to Romney (the other Potemkin conservative here) or Huckabee? Republican rules favor winner-take-all contests, either statewide or by Congressional district, so if Thompson takes more from others and helps McCain win pluralities, the betting is that Fred will mope through the Feb. 5 contests.

David Brauer covers media, Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County politics. He can be reached at dbrauer [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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