- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2012

In an election campaign dominated by jobs and government spending, former President Bill Clinton — who oversaw a booming economy and the first federal surpluses in decades — has become a symbol of better times that both President Obama and Republicans are trying to tap.

Democrats said Monday that Mr. Clinton officially will renominate the president at the party’s convention in September, a prime-time speech that will go head to head with the NFL’s opening game between the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys.

But Republicans are just as eager to claim Mr. Clinton this year, arguing that Mr. Obama has forsaken key parts of the Clinton agenda that were so attractive to voters in 1992 and 1996.

“President Clinton oversaw the longest economic expansion in U.S. history, pursuing many of the same policies that President Obama is proposing and implementing today,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chairman of the Democratic National Convention, to be held Sept. 4-6 in Charlotte, N.C. “There is no one better to lay out the choice in this election between moving forward with President Obama or falling backward with Mitt Romney.”

Mr. Clinton will speak at the convention Sept. 5, the day before Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Mr. Obama speak.

Democrats say Mr. Clinton will appeal directly to a crucial demographic that shows lasting support but appears lukewarm toward Mr. Obama — moderate, white, blue-collar voters.

“It’s always been a more challenging group for any president,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. “But [Mr. Clinton] comes from that same background, growing up in Arkansas, and he connects better with them as a result.”

Mr. Clinton is the only Democrat to have won two presidential elections in the past 70 years, and broke 12 straight years of a Republican-occupied White House.

He never cracked 50 percent of the vote, each time winning a plurality in a three-way contest, but has greater popularity than most other former presidents, as memories of his accomplishments — such as working with a Republican-led Congress to pass four balanced budgets and welfare reform — have largely outlasted those of the extramarital affair that led to his impeachment.

Mr. Clinton’s speech will compete with the NFL’s opening night. The NFL initially planned to open the next night, but moved the game up a day so it didn’t conflict with Mr. Obama’s address.

Democrats hope that Mr. Clinton will energize reliable Democratic voters and, more important, sway undecided voters who were won over by his centrist politics.

Republicans, though, are trying to win those same voters and think Mr. Clinton works to their advantage. They argue that Mr. Obama is too liberal to embrace the bipartisanship that defined much of Mr. Clinton’s tenure.

“There is a huge gap between Bill Clinton’s effort to take the Democratic Party to the center and Barack Obama’s effort to take it to the left,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican who negotiated with Mr. Clinton during the 1990s, said Monday during a campaign stop for Mr. Romney in Virginia. “So I think, in a funny kind of way, having President Clinton at the Democratic convention may highlight the difference between the two choices.”

The Democratic convention should provide the latest step in a reconciliation between the president and Mr. Clinton, who clashed in a fierce 2008 Democratic presidential primary between Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Although both sides largely have made up on the public stage, Mr. Clinton occasionally has criticized Mr. Obama since then, to the chagrin of many Democrats.

This spring, he denounced the Obama campaign’s attacks on Mr. Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and went as far as to call the former Massachusetts governor’s business record “stellar.”

He also split from the president and congressional Democrats in an interview last month with CNBC, when he said that approving a one-year extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts would be “probably the best thing to do,” even as Democrats sought to raise rates for households making more than $250,000 a year.

Mr. Clinton backed off the statement shortly thereafter, but it was seized upon by Republicans, who say it is indicative of his political differences with Mr. Obama.

“No amount of showmanship can paper over the differences between these two presidents,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. “Americans deserve a president willing to run on his own record, not the record he wishes he had.”

Michael Heaney, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, said an effective speech by Mr. Clinton could help give the Obama campaign a post-convention bump in the polls, but that it is unlikely to make or break the campaign barring a major gaffe.

“His speech in particular is not that important, but it’s a part of the party’s putting together a carefully crafted convention program,” he said. “What they do right is less important than what they do wrong.”

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