WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton's been spending a lot of time in small-town Ohio. He's heading to Rhode Island on Thursday. From there, he may head back to some of the lesser-known dots on Ohio's map, probably Marion or Mansfield.
Is this any way for a campaign to use a former president of the United States?
Sure, because it's a way to keep him out of the media spotlight and still be useful to his wife's White House bid.
"The Clinton campaign is sending Bill to safe places, to small cities where a visit by a former president is a really big deal," said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
The Clinton campaign won't comment on its Bill strategy, but the numbers and the fallout from some of his public appearances earlier in the campaign suggest why West's view, one widely shared by other analysts, makes sense.
Repeatedly in January, Bill Clinton's controversial comments got the campaign a lot of unwanted publicity, and he was criticized for overshadowing his wife.
Among his comments: suggesting that black voters would not support a white candidate over candidate Barack Obama and calling Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." He also let loose several red-faced, finger-wagging tirades against the news media that circulated widely on the Internet.
A Pew Research Center survey found that Clinton's prominent role lowered public perceptions of him. In October, 34 percent disliked the idea of having Bill Clinton "back in the White House," and by February, the number was up to 41 percent.
Among independents, a crucial voting bloc in many primary states, the number jumped from 35 percent in October to 45 percent in February.
"He seems to be making more news than helping," said Carl Pinkele, a politics professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Today, Clinton is largely sent to places where national and big-city media don't often go, or to court groups already inclined to back his wife.
On Sunday, Clinton visited the Springfield, Ohio, YMCA, where about 700 people gathered, then went to Bowling Green Community Center and Lima High School.
On Monday, about 1,500 people came to see Clinton at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, where he reminded voters that popular Gov. Ted Strickland backs his wife.
After stops in Texas on Tuesday and Wednesday, Clinton is scheduled to head Thursday to Smithfield, R.I.
Rhode Island, which holds a primary on March 4, is regarded as friendly territory for the Clintons — Hillary Clinton made two stops there Sunday and daughter Chelsea is expected back this weekend.
But the national media are focusing on Texas and Ohio, which vote the same day. Should Hillary Clinton lose those but win Rhode Island, it's hardly likely to be seen as the victory that saves her campaign. So why waste Bill there?
Look at it this way, suggested West: Should Hillary Clinton survive the Tuesday contests, she'll be engaged in a dogged struggle for every convention delegate, so she has to send Bill where the delegates are.
"Rhode Island has a lot of constituencies that are usually pro-Clinton," West said, so it offers an easy way to pick up some delegates.
That's also why Bill Clinton is expected to head back to smaller Ohio venues later this week. The appearance of a former president in places such as Marion and Mansfield could get voters excited and give them fresh incentive to vote for his wife.
The local media are already excited.
The Marion Star reported Tuesday that Clinton's visit will be the first by a president, incumbent or otherwise, since Richard Nixon stopped there 40 years ago, and the Bucyrus Telegraph Forum ran a story that began with a local woman explaining that she was eager to secure a front-row seat.
That's the point of having Bill Clinton in such places, Pinkele said.
"If you want to see a president in Marion," he explained, "you usually have to go see the Warren Harding Memorial."