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After sitting out the past few elections, Bill Clinton is back with gusto

BALTIMORE—The rally here Thursday was for Maryland Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin's Senate campaign, but Josephine Alston made no bones about why she came.

"I didn't pay $10 to park, come all this way for Ben Cardin, though I will vote for him," said Alston, a 69-year-old retiree. "I'm here for Bill Clinton. I admire Bill Clinton. Things were better when he was president."

After being relegated to the sidelines by Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000 and limited by health issues in 2004, former President Bill Clinton is back on the campaign trail with gusto in 2006, aggressively stumping for Democratic House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates nationwide.

In doing so, Clinton is also defending his administration's legacy against Republican attacks and laying the groundwork for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's expected 2008 White House run.

"He's collecting a lot of political goodwill that could help her later on," said Michael Franc, a political analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "Don't forget their old adage: With one, you get two."

Whatever his motivation, Clinton is back as the Democratic Party's most visible face and the most sought-after campaigner and fundraiser this year.

Thursday's rally for Cardin preceded an afternoon pitch for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's gubernatorial bid and an early evening fundraiser for James Webb's Senate campaign in Virginia. All were part of 32 campaign-related events Clinton has headlined in 18 states since April, according to Clinton's foundation.

And by Election Day on Nov. 7, Clinton will have headlined at least 20 more events in a dozen states.

Clinton lovers—and even some Clinton haters—agree that he's effective at providing vocal firepower and talking points to Democrats who are tired of being portrayed by Republicans as cut-and-run cowards on Iraq, weak-willed in the war on terror, and wild-eyed, tax-and-spend liberals who'll ruin the U.S. economy if elected.

He told a small but enthusiastic crowd in Baltimore that the Republican Party has been hijacked by "the most ideological, most extreme, right-wing section" and is obsessed with "the concentration of wealth, the use of government power in the most unaccountable way to help the special-interest groups that support them, and the use of ideology to divide and distract and terrify people and to convince people that they're good and we're just a bunch of slugs."

"He's the Pied Piper for angry Democrats," said Franc of Heritage, which was no friend of the former president. "He's most effective when the Democratic voter base is at its most intense—angry about the war in Iraq, about the economy, whatever has them riled up."

Republican officials scoff at Clinton's political rock-star status, saying it shows how little luster Democratic leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have.

"Bill Clinton's star power is not on the ballot, and this election will instead be about the Democrats' flawed policies that embrace a weaker war on terror and tax hikes," said Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser, said Clinton's sustained re-emergence has given Democrats a much-need "spinal infusion" and pointed to Clinton's combative interview with Fox News last month as a defining moment.

"He stood up to Fox," Begala said, referring to a TV network that many Democrats view as the house organ for the Republican Party. "It has given us a hero to rally around."

Not everyone was anxious to rally around Clinton toward the end of his presidency. Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment made many Democrats weary and some Democratic candidates wary of being seen with him.

Gore kept Clinton at a distance in 2000, unleashing him late in his presidential campaign—too late, Gore detractors say—largely to appeal to African-American voters in a handful of states. Clinton did campaign for some Democrats in 2002, but not as much as now.

Clinton's ability to campaign in 2004 was limited because he was recovering from quadruple-bypass heart surgery. He stumped for Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign seven weeks after the operation at a dramatic outdoor rally in Philadelphia that drew perhaps 100,000 people.

Some Democrats worry that Clinton's star power saps wattage from the candidates he's campaigning for. Kerry, talking to reporters this month, disagreed.

"Anytime you get a former president of the United States who ... balanced the budget, was fiscally responsible, created jobs and fought a war without losing one casualty, you've got an asset that's going to help draw the lines in this race of what's important and what isn't," he said.

Some observers believe that Clinton isn't just campaigning for Democratic candidates. He's also stumping for his legacy and working on behalf of his wife, the junior senator from New York with White House aspirations.

"Presidents are awfully worried about their legacies," said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "What we are seeing here is a combination of a president worried about his legacy and him seeing a way to rally his own troops."

Jay Carson, Clinton's spokesman, insists that Clinton is on a single mission: a Democratic takeover of Congress on Nov. 7.

"And that is the sole reason and motivating factor for his campaign schedule," Carson said.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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