CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bill Clinton makes the transition from comeback kid to elder statesman Wednesday night as he addresses the Democratic National Convention and urges Americans to give Barack Obama a second term as president.
Clinton's speech is already invested with drama and excitement--at a convention lacking in both-- because the former president is widely considered a brilliant politician who knows how to capture the moment. He also has a knack for connecting with everyday Americans, including the key constituency of working-class whites, in contrast to Obama who often seems aloof and too cerebral to many voters and whose economic record has been a major disappointment.
But the biggest reason for the growing interest in Clinton's speech is the possibility that he may stray off message, as he has done before. For example, he praised Republican challenger Mitt Romney's business background as stellar even though the Obama campaign was in the process of attacking that record as one of predatory capitalism. And Clinton differed with Obama by saying current tax cuts should be extended temporarily for the rich, only to back off quickly when critics began to underscore the differences between the two men.
Above all, Clinton is expected to make the case for why middle-class voters should prefer Obama over Romney. Clinton plans to call attention to his own successes in strengthening the economy, creating jobs, and building up a federal surplus. His eight years in the White House are fondly remembered by many voters, especially fellow Democrats, as a time of prosperity and relative peace. His character flaws, exemplified by his impeachment for lying about his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, have faded as decisive events. Seventy per cent of Americans have a favorable view of Clinton today, compared with 53 per cent for Obama and 40 per cent for Romney.
He also will argue that the GOP would return to an agenda that failed in the past. In a recent TV ad for Obama, Clinton said, "This election, to me, is about which candidate is more likely to return us to full employment. There is a clear choice. The Republican plan is to cut more taxes on upper-income people and go back to deregulation. That's what got us in trouble in the first place. President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up--investing in innovation, education and job training. It only works if there is a strong middle class. That's what happened when I was president. We need to keep going with his plan."
These talking points, if Clinton stays with them, are consistent with the overall goal of the Obama campaign to demolish Romney's credentials and limit any momentum he may be gaining with key groups. This pattern has become clear: "Romney tries to build a bridge, and Obama tries to blow it up," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
The question hanging over the red-white-and-blue themed the convention hall is whether Clinton will overshadow Obama, who gives his acceptance speech Thursday night.
The Clinton-Obama relationship is tangled in emotional and political history, and has been very rocky in the past, especially during the 2008 Democratic primaries when Hillary Clinton, the former president's wife, ran unsuccessfully against Obama for their party's nomination. That bitterness has disappeared, at least publicly, and Mrs. Clinton has been serving for the past three-and-a-half years as Obama's loyal secretary of state.
Obama and Clinton aren't close friends, associates say, but they do talk periodically and Obama has a big stake in Clinton trying to validate the current president with independent and centrist voters.
Obama strategists would also like Clinton to dispute Romney's charges that Obama is trying to weaken the work requirements for welfare recipients mandated in the 1996 welfare overhaul enacted during the Clinton presidency. Obama denies he is doing any such thing.
But it's unclear how much Clinton will coordinate his speech with Team Obama. Clinton has a long history of revising his speeches until the very last minute, so no one can be sure exactly what he will say Wednesday night.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes a daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," on usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.