GREENVILLE, S.C. — If there was offense taken at the time, South Carolina Democrats say they’re ready to forgive former President Clinton for his sharp elbows during the 2008 presidential race, welcoming him back to the state Tuesday, where he urged them to pick his wife’s pragmatism over the expansive plans of Sen. Bernard Sanders.
Mr. Clinton, donning his masterful role as stump-speaker, sought to connect Hillary Clinton to his own eight years in office, to President Obama’s tenure and even to the anger that’s forced Mrs. Clinton into a tougher primary race than she had hoped.
And taking aim directly at the young voters drawn to Mr. Sanders’ promise of free public college, Mr. Clinton said he understood the anger of young voters who owe tens of thousands of dollars in college debts and are stuck in jobs they don’t like but feel they can’t leave because of their debt.
“A lot of these young millennials are mad, and I think they are making a mistake, but they’re supporting her opponent, because he’s promising free college. Why? Because they can’t move out of their parents’ homes because they can’t afford to pay their debt,” he said.
His appearance comes just a day after another former president, George W. Bush, was also on the campaign trail, urging voters to boost his brother Jeb Bush in the GOP primary.
Together the Clintons and Bushes make up the two current American political dynasties, having been on every winning presidential ticket from 1980 through 2004. The streak ended when Mr. Obama defeated Mrs. Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2008, thanks in large part to the boost he got by winning South Carolina’s primary.
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Mr. Clinton was his wife’s chief attack dog for much of that campaign, including jabbing at Mr. Obama for being inexperienced and saying his claim that he was a steady opponent of the Iraq War was “a fairy tale.” Mr. Clinton also accused Mr. Obama of running a negative campaign and said the press was biased toward him.
After Mr. Obama won South Carolina, Mr. Clinton seemed to diminish the victory as a matter of race, pointing to another black candidate, Jesse Jackson, who won the Democratic primary here in 1984. South Carolina’s Democratic primary electorate was more than 50 percent black in 2008.
This time around though, with the Democratic primary looming Feb. 27, it is Mrs. Clinton who is counting on black voters to rescue her from the challenge by Mr. Sanders, who has much of the white vote that flowed to Mrs. Clinton in 2008.
Mr. Clinton peppered his speech Tuesday with references to Mrs. Clinton’s work for poor minorities, including instituting a preschool program in Arkansas that educated parents, getting them up to speed so they enrolled their children in school early. He also pushed gun control and environmental policies, saying they can help save minorities’ lives.
Mr. Clinton offered his own record in the White House as that of Mrs. Clinton as well, saying together they fought for health care and won an early skirmish in getting a national children’s health program, years before Mr. Obama won passage of Obamacare.
The former president repeatedly praised Mr. Obama for the health law, for signing the Dodd-Frank legislation designed to impose stiffer regulations on Wall Street and for giving Mrs. Clinton the leeway to negotiate deals with Russia and Iran.
He waved away the economic doldrums that have dominated Mr. Obama’s tenure, saying it “takes 10 years to get over a financial crisis.” But he acknowledged the economic fear and anger that’s grown under Mr. Obama, saying that’s what’s boosted Mr. Sanders’ campaign.
The anger is also what’s boosted Donald Trump, the GOP’s front-runner, who earlier in the campaign took aim at Mr. Clinton for his behavior in the 2008 race.
“Remember that Bill Clinton was brought in to help Hillary against Obama in 2008. He was terrible, failed badly, and was called a racist!” Mr. Trump said on Twitter in December.
Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat and the most senior black lawmaker in Congress, told The New York Times that Mr. Trump appeared to be trying to tamp down black voters’ enthusiasm for Mrs. Clinton this year.
Hoping to bury any bad feelings from 2008, Mr. Clinton repeatedly tailored his remarks Tuesday to his heavily black audience in Greenville.
He got a boost from Fletcher Smith, a former state lawmaker who introduced Mr. Clinton and credited him with rescuing Mr. Obama in 2012.
“President Bill Clinton went out personally and campaigned for our president, and he was instrumental in large measure for saving the presidency of President Obama,” Mr. Smith said.
For Sheila McDaniel, a 65-year-old black woman who supported Mr. Obama in 2008, there was nothing to forgive Mr. Clinton for. She said she saw his rhetoric in that race as a man strenuously supporting his wife. If it had been otherwise, she said, “we don’t forgive like that.”
But Michele Senac, also from Greenville, said she was there when Mr. Clinton came to town in 2008, and had less fond memories.
“I was not happy with the way he handled things, I have to say, but I obviously have not held a grudge. I think that he got a little caught up in the moment,” she said. “I’m really OK with that. I’ve forgiven him for that.”
Ms. Senac, who is white, started out supporting Mrs. Clinton in 2008 but switched to Mr. Obama by the primary.
“He appealed to my wanting a change, and especially after [George W. Bush] and everything we went through with him, and I just felt at that time maybe he could do it and Hillary couldn’t,” she said. “But now we’ve got sort of the same situation in a way: We’ve got Bernie and we’ve got Hillary, and it’s like night and day. I’m very clear that I’m voting for her.”
Perhaps learning from his 2008 attacks, Mr. Clinton didn’t directly attack Mr. Sanders on Tuesday, but did draw deep distinctions between him and Mrs. Clinton.
In particular, Mr. Clinton said it would be a disservice to Democratic lawmakers who lost their seats after voting for Obamacare if the country were to replace it with a single-payer socialized system, as Mr. Sanders proposes.
“The battlefield of America is littered with the bodies of former congressmen and former senators who gave up their seat to give you the right to health care,” he said.
Mr. Clinton did get one part of his speech wrong when he said neither of the suspects in December’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino had been to the Middle East.
Authorities say the wife, Tashfeen Malik, was from Pakistan and had spent time in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, that’s where she met her husband, Syed Farook, in person for the first time after first connecting online. She was staying with family in Saudi Arabia when Farook came to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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