Sunday, April 27, 2008

It starts with his hand rising, and then the index finger begins to wag. But reporters know they are in the midst of a Bill Clinton eruption when his face quickly turns a shade of crimson, moving to purple when he’s really getting hot and in the throes of a high-minded scolding.

In Pennsylvania Monday, on the eve of a key primary that his wife would eventually win by close to double digits, the former president, vented his frustrations after a reporter asked him about his comments on race and the campaign — and he resorted to profanity in an aside, after he thought he was off microphone.

Mr. Clinton’s anger has been on frequent display during his wife’s presidential campaign this year, and some are wondering if what was supposed to be Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s biggest campaign asset may actually sabotage her candidacy.

Across the Internet, his temper fits and campaign missteps have been chronicled by pundits who describe Mr. Clinton as “saboteur.”

“The man usually considered to be the most cunning politician of his generation is kind of losing his sense of the right move,” said Jeremy Mayer, a professor who directs the master’s program in public policy at George Mason University.

Mr. Mayer added that “what we have seen in the last three months is that he’s not as effective in his personal conduct as a campaigner as he has been historically for himself.”

But Mr. Clinton still draws the crowds, and pundits have said his successes have greatly helped his wife.

“We want Bill,” crowds chanted Thursday on the campus of North Carolina’s Elon University, where Mr. Clinton was back on the stump for his wife ahead of the state’s May 6 primary — the latest in her battle with rival Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

But Mr. Clinton is increasingly tagged as a hothead, even by those who supported him and who now wish he’d put a lid on his personal outbursts.

A recent poll found that Mr. Clinton’s unfavorable rating is at its highest point ever: 51 percent. Mrs. Clinton of New York is doing even worse — 54 percent have an unfavorable opinion of her. And, while some suggested a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency might have the added bonus of a two-for-one with Bill, a Pew poll in February found that 41 percent of voters — up from 34 percent last fall — were unhappy with the notion of Mr. Clinton “back in the White House.”

“He is no longer on his game,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “He has surprised people because his political skills in the ‘80s and ‘90s were always sharp, but now he’s very rusty — the way former presidents tend to get … and that has repeatedly gotten in the way of her message.”

Mrs. Clinton has remained mum in public, but it seems she is unhappy about some of her husband’s antics.

Earlier this month, after Mr. Clinton angrily sprung to her defense, describing her as “exhausted” after she “misspoke” about arriving on a trip to Bosnia under sniper fire, which was untrue, she told him to put a muzzle on the “white knight” routine.

“Hillary called me and said, ‘You don’t remember this; you weren’t there. Let me handle it,’ ” Mr. Clinton told reporters on a stop in Indiana. “And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ”

The Bosnia incident, however, was not his only fit of anger.

When the Clintons’ longtime pal, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, publicly announced his support of Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton couldn’t suppress his rage at the perceived backstabbing.

“Five times to my face he said that he would never do it,” fumed Mr. Clinton, in whose administration Mr. Richardson served as energy secretary and U.N. ambassador.

Most damaging for his image, though, is that he’s angered once-loyal black Democrats in the way he has addressed Mr. Obama’s bid for the White House. He compared Mr. Obama’s success in South Carolina with two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson’s previous wins there in 1984 and 1988, suggesting it was natural Mr. Obama would win that state as well.

Raising the issue and drawing the comparison with Mr. Jackson was legitimate, says Duke University political scientist Kerry Haynie, but Mr. Clinton’s handling of race in an election where it clearly remains a factor has been less than astute.

“I think he and the Clinton campaign are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Mr. Haynie, the co-director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender. “I think they have been sort of ham-handed in the way that they have dealt with the race issue.”

The top black lawmaker in the House, Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, told the New York Times last week Mr. Clinton may have done irreparable damage.

“When he was going through his impeachment problems, it was the black community that bellied up to the bar,” Mr. Clyburn said. “I think black folks feel strongly that this is a strange way for President Clinton to show his appreciation.”

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