CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Twelve years ago, President Clinton was offered a very limited role at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles that nominated his vice president, Al Gore, to succeed him, and many think pushing Mr. Clinton into the corner in the fall campaign may have cost Mr. Gore a state or two and possibly the White House.
Despite his lower-profile role that year, when his time came to speak at the Los Angeles convention, Mr. Clinton savored every minute of it, running down a laundry list of his accomplishments during two terms, cracking a few jokes, giving a heartfelt thanks to Mr. Gore for supporting him as vice president and electrifying the convention hall.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a state legislator at the time who would go on to win a House seat that November, was so impressed by Mr. Clinton’s performance he told him afterward it was the best convention speech he had ever heard.
When Mr. Schiff got home from the convention a few days later, there was a parcel on his doorstep. Inside was a copy of the speech signed by Mr. Clinton with a personal note: “Thought you might like a copy of this — Bill.”
It was vintage Bill Clinton, a president who loves the limelight and being adored, and is so good at performing on a grand stage that there’s always a chance he will overshadow anyone that comes after him. On Wednesday night, his charisma and spotlight-stealing skills faced a major test as he spoke for another Democratic candidate, President Obama.
But party officials were concerned about Mr. Clinton sucking up all the oxygen in the room. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, is on the other side of the world, in the middle of a lengthy trip across Asia, and won’t be attending the convention at all.
Speculation about the relationship between Mr. Obama and the Clintons goes back to the 2008 battle they fought for the party’s presidential nod, and resentments linger over the way a first-term senator from Illinois managed to defeat Mrs. Clinton, considered by some a prohibitive front-runner at the time.
Mr. Clinton’s Wednesday speech is “the Democrats’ Clint Eastwood moment,” said Jennifer Laszlo, a former spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee who now owns her own public-affairs agency, a reference to the wildly unscripted address by the famous actor at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., last week.
“It’s one of the speeches I’m most looking forward to all week,” Mr. Schiff said. “No one sets out a narrative as well as he does. It will be one of the most consequential speeches of the election.”
Despite their reservations, most Democrats want to deploy Mr. Clinton more aggressively, confident that he can help rally party loyalists who remember happier economic times and budget surpluses under his leadership and are experiencing an enthusiasm gap for Mr. Obama this year as the economy struggles to recover.
But not every member of the Democratic Party remains enthralled with the contentious and sometimes chaotic Clinton years.
Richard Parker, an economist and Harvard professor who was a classmate of Mr. Clinton’s at Oxford, said his tenure marked a departure from traditional liberal alliances and a break from the goal of expanding the social safety net associated with Democratic presidents in the past.
“He was generally identified as a neo-Democrat who was more friendly to business and limited government,” Mr. Parker said. “And the way he triangulated his Democratic colleagues in the Congress when he ran for a second term — there was a lot of resentment over that.”
Mr. Parker also remembers the “shame and embarrassment” of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when Democrats were forced to defend their president’s behavior during the lengthy impeachment ordeal, and he takes issue with how he has spent his time since leaving office.
“He’s spending most of his time on Wall Street, rather than Harlem, where his office is, and he said he was going to be so focused on revitalizing,” said Mr. Parker.
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at email@example.com.
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