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Anatomy of Bill Clinton's stump

From NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann
After a few weeks of crimson-faced outbursts and unambiguous wallops aimed at his wife's rival for the Democratic nomination, reporters have suddenly found themselves looking at a potential news vacuum from super-surrogate Bill Clinton. With exit polling indicating that the former president's uninhibited campaigning in South Carolina may have hurt the candidate more than it helped, the Hillary brain trust appears to be shortening his leash -- much to the frustration of journalists whose interest was piqued enough to warrant chasing him around the country in the week before Super Tuesday.

During stops in Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado over the past week, Clinton has made little more than the small ripples of news that follow him everywhere -- crowd sizes, applause lines, and his continuing emphasis on his wife's experience. His stump speech sounds much like it did late in the game in Iowa. After taking heat for early slips about health care (he took the blame for the failure of the plan his wife spearheaded) and Iraq (he claimed initial opposition to the war in Iraq), the former president took few or no questions from the audience after his appearances in the Hawkeye State as caucus day drew near. Going into Super Tuesday, the same tactic of running out the clock is starting to look like the game plan. The Clinton campaign, after all, has always been known for its aggressive blocking on the line of scrimmage.

But without much hope -- for the moment -- of another "fairy tale" moment from the man from Hope, Bill's bread and butter warrants a second look.  Line by line, his standard stump speech is sprinkled with painstakingly logical -- if veiled -- rebuttals to arguments made by Hillary's detractors.

Associated Press guru and longtime Clinton expert Ron Fournier wrote in November that Clinton's stump appeal was "long-winded, misleading, and self-absorbed." There's no doubt that he is self-referential -- albeit less so now than a few months ago -- and it's also hard to believe that the crowd doesn't forgive him for it almost universally. Like his wife, he can be pedantic; unlike her, he sometimes flirts with professorial austerity in his appeal to make audiences, especially young ones, listen to his appeal. Almost without fail, he punctuates his discussion of every issue with one of three phrases: "this is a really big deal," "you should care about this," or "this is important."

Clinton always enters the room with a look of beatific joy and wonder, sometimes turning 360 degrees to observe the crowd -- wide-eyed, as if he's perpetually a bit surprised at the turnout. Although his crowds have been substantially smaller than Obama's, his entrances prompt a similar eruption of energy that Clinton tries to harness with an opening sentiment of unity and movement politics. "When I look out here," he told a crowd at the University of Missouri, "I see the America that Hillary wants for tomorrow."

And the crowd goes wild.

Perhaps the most fascinating trick play to watch Clinton enact is the balancing act between nostalgia for the past and change for the future. The Clinton apparatus is faced with the fascinating gymnastics act of conjuring up the prosperity of the 90s without stodgily invoking the past.

That challenge is particularly difficult for Bill Clinton, who is charged with countering Obama's freshness with a cache that is -- at the end of the day -- over a decade old. Supporters rarely fail to mention the prosperity of the 1990s when reporters ask them about their impressions of the Billary dyad.

But it's clear that the Clintons are mindful that wistfulness for the past could be a risky contrast to Obama's bold call for forward-looking change. It's no surprise that Clinton said in Columbia, Mo., that he's "always a little reluctant to go around and speak because sometimes other people say 'well we don't want to go back to the past,' even though the nineties weren't too bad compared to this decade." 

It is noteworthy, however, that he made that point within the first minute of his stump speech. It was followed with a surefire applause line: "Hillary does not want to go back to the past. She wants to get America back on its feet again so that we can march together into the future!"

But the lofty appeals for partisan harmony are quickly replaced by Clinton's deliberate -- even ploddingly rational -- argument for his wife's candidacy. "I want to ask you to vote for Hillary for president," he said plainly to several hundred students in Phoenix. "And I think that my reasons are very good." (His delivery of the line was so simple, in fact, that a giggle washed over the crowd.)

He makes no apologies for the academic shade of his remarks; in Albuquerque he said that "the American people… would rather hear someone talk to them like this than give a big whoop-de-doo speech."

And "whoop-de-doo" it's not. Since the economic stimulus crisis bubbled above the fold, Clinton has opened his remarks with a step-by-step explanation of the financial machete that has cut the bottom out of the mortgage market. Next come the problems plaguing the health care industry, or America's diminished standing in the world, or -- when he's speaking to students -- the money woes borne of college loans. International debt and global warming always make it into the mix as well, with the latter allowing for a reliably crowd-pleasing acknowledgment of Al Gore.

For each problem, the president outlines his wife's policy proposal, being sure to point out its uniqueness among the candidates. Since John Edwards withdrew from the race last week, for example, he's careful to point out that Hillary is the only remaining candidate to offer a universal health care plan.

With astonishing regularity, he closes each policy pitch with a bargain. (One of my colleagues brilliantly describes it as "transactional.") Vote for her, he says, and you will receive.

In Phoenix, on children's health care: "Vote for Hillary for president, and you'll get it."  In Highland Hills, Ohio, on foreign policy: "You want a changemaker? Vote for her for president." In Denver, on green-collar jobs: "If you want that, vote for her. She'll give it to you. She has the best energy plan."

A vote for Hillary, in other words, will be rewarded with "real changes in other people's lives." Or rather, the listener's life. From Day One. It's one-to-one deal-making that is a far cry from Obama's sweeping call for collective action -- "Let's go change the world."
Clinton's mandate, explicit or not, is to mirror the magic of Obama's inclusive charisma that conjures crowds that look more like U2 concerts than political rallies. But, probably much to the amusement of the critics who tied his sexual indiscretions to presidential hubris, Bill warns that the White House ain't Madison Square Garden.

Toward the end of his speech, Clinton launches into a comical riff about the cushy perks of being the Leader of the Free World. 

"They play a song every time you walk in the room," he chuckles knowingly. "You never have to wait in traffic. And your airplane is so cool that they make movies about it."  

The audience always eats it up, especially when he concludes with mock sobriety -- "But if you're not careful, you might think that you're somebody" -- and then, with true sobriety and a stern look -- "You see what I'm saying?"

Yup, Bill. Clear as day.