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Back to the future with 'Billary'?

From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones
Everybody knew Bill Clinton could be both a blessing and a curse for Mrs. Clinton in her quest to become America's first female president, and it doesn't seem like her campaign has quite figured out just what to do with him. He's there one minute -- stumping for his wife, taking the blame for the failure of "Hillarycare" in the 1990s a few weeks ago, or rewriting history on his position on the Iraq war this week -- and gone the next.

While Obama has been playing up the future campaign stops to be made by his most popular surrogate, Oprah Winfrey, Clinton campaign staffers aren't saying anything about when Bill will hit the road for his wife again -- or whether they'll be appearing together at campaign events any time soon. (Then again, the Clinton camp is notoriously tight-lipped about even minor details when it comes to schedules.)

"The "We-ness", or the Bill Clinton factor, has been dicey from the beginning. There's no road map for this," said Barbara Kellerman, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and an expert on the presidency and women in politics. "It seems to me that they're figuring it out as they go along. My impression is this is very short-term planning."

At the moment, that seems to be the case. On the stump over the last week in Iowa and South Carolina, Hillary's mentions of her husband and her use of the word "we" have been on the rise. For months, the senator has been bringing up Bill in talking about the budget surplus he left at the end of his term, and saying that President Bush has squandered that money, but she is spending more time lately talking about him and about her involvement in his administration.

At a recent stop in Iowa Falls, IA (on November 25), Clinton referred to "my husband" or said "we" in reference to his presidency six times in 14 minutes. To wit:
-- "I want to give Medicare the right to negotiate for lower drug prices with the drug companies. That's what we did with the VA when my husband was president," she said during the question and answer session.
-- "When we did welfare reform back in 90s, the Republican Congress tried to pass a reform bill that eliminated Medicaid for mothers transitioning into the workforce, tried to limit the amount of time you could stay on Medicaid and I was proud of my husband for vetoing both of those," the senator said in response to a question about helping single mothers transition from welfare to work without losing their health coverage.
-- When asked about immigration, she said "I've traveled this country continually for more than 15 years. During the 1990s, at events like this, people weren't asking me questions. Now they ask me at every event. Why? Because we created more than 22 million jobs in the 1990s in America, average income went up. People lifted themselves out of poverty. We had an economic policy in the 1990s that worked for Americans."
-- And at a school in Bennettsville, SC on Tuesday, the she made reference to "the first Clinton Administration" in talking about a program her husband put in place to increase the number of police on the streets. It's all part of the Clintons' argument for taking America "back to the future."

There's nothing wrong with any Democrat highlighting what they see as a past Democratic president's successes or the party's. It's also true that for Hillary these references could be interpreted as an attempt to conflate her time in the White House, by her husband's side, with his successes, and to add to her own argument that she is the best experienced candidate to do his former job. Over the weekend in Perry, IA, she argued that she was the "face of America" during his Administration.

"I traveled to I think, uh, I don't know, maybe 80, 82 countries and I went a lot of places that the president or the vice president or the secretary of state couldn't get there yet," Clinton told reporters. "I think that there are lots of ways in which what I did was the face of America when I was there, when I was representing not just my husband but the country."

So just what do voters think about all this?

Said Ed Jenkins, a retiree from Spartanburg, SC: "I think the fact that she was in that Administration and very much a part of politics with her husband, their good partnership as far as moving up in the world and doing things and that when he was governor, she was knowledgeable of what he was doing all the time, when he was the president, she was quite knowledgeable of what he was doing. She's a U.S. senator now and I think she has all the qualifications. She has more than enough."

But there's still a danger here. "The most interesting thing about this gender issue at the moment is she's referring much more –- which I think is a mistake -– to her time in the White House, rather than her very good record in the Senate," said the Kennedy School's Kellerman.

Some voters agree. "She's a woman. She needs to make a standing for herself and with her expertise I really think that she could really do good even if though she doesn't have to have the background experience of her husband," said Floree Copeland, a fan of Bill Clinton and one of the South Carolina ministers who came out to endorse the senator in Spartanburg on Tuesday. "I just think that she really needs to stand on her own actual record."