He claimed his political chops have grown rusty since he left office two years ago, but former President Bill Clinton delivered a smooth and rousing endorsement of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend during a Baltimore campaign swing yesterday that raised $750,000 for Democratic candidates.
Clinton addressed a rally at Coppin State College and motorcaded to an Inner Harbor hotel for a series of events with donors who paid $100 to shake his hand or $4,000 to dine on roast beef with him.
The visit comes as Townsend is locked in a tight race with Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who collected $1.8 million at an Oct. 2 event with President Bush.
Clinton touched on many of Townsend's campaign themes during a nine-minute address to a crowd of 2,500 at Coppin Center, saying that as a former governor, he knows what it takes to run a state.
"Whether it is education, or law enforcement and safe streets, or getting young people into community service across racial lines to make a difference ... she, among all, was the finest lieutenant governor in the United States of America," he said of Townsend.
An uncertain economy, Clinton said, makes the Nov. 5 election "really important to Maryland."
"When you have a good economy, it's not quite as important to have a good governor," he said. "I used to tell people, if you have plenty of money, you can almost have a lobotomy and be a successful governor."
The Maryland foray by a Democratic headliner was designed not only to raise money but also to solidify Townsend's standing among African-Americans and other party stalwarts. Campaigning with an African-American running mate, Ehrlich is making overtures to black voters in Baltimore and Prince George's County, hoping to win votes in areas where he said Republicans have never trod.
Clinton played a similar role during the 1998 campaign when he spoke at a Baltimore church the Sunday before the election, imploring the black congregation to flock to the polls for Townsend and Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Glendening went on to defeat Ellen Sauerbrey, and many analysts credit the presidential visit with generating excitement.
Before the rally yesterday, he huddled with about 80 ministers and their staffs to energize them.
"To many, many Democrats in Maryland, he is the man," said David Paulson, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "One of the elements of getting out that vote is getting people motivated, and Bill Clinton motivates people."
Introducing Clinton yesterday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings called him "the man who has often been called the first black president." Cummings noted that Clinton will be inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame tonight.
But Clinton rejected the notion that his appeal was narrow.
"They'll bring President Clinton in and he'll go talk to the kids and the minorities and the hard-core Democrats, but this election is going to be decided by the swing voters," he said, mocking news accounts of his activity since leaving office.
"Well, you decide if you want to swing with this," he said to cheers, adding, "I'm a little out of practice, but I'm trying to get back in."
Clinton climbed the stage at Coppin to the strains of the Salt-N-Pepa dance song "Push It," played by the Frederick Douglass High School Marching Band. Mayor Martin O'Malley thanked him for "eight years of principled leadership."
After the former president's address, Townsend delivered her stump speech as scores of Coppin students and others streamed out of the auditorium. Ashley Quick, 18, a Coppin freshman, indicated that the event had its intended effect.
"I wasn't [voting for Townsend], but now I am because of this rally," Quick said. "I didn't even know who she was."
At the Wyndham Hotel, Glendening was scheduled to introduce Clinton but canceled because his infant daughter was recovering from a round of shots and his wife was ill.
An appearance by influential State House lobbyist Bruce Bereano, an Ehrlich supporter, raised eyebrows. Many Democrats asked him why he was there, some jokingly, others not.
"I'm here for Bill Clinton," Bereano said. "I paid my [donation] with my own money. People have to understand tolerance. And people who grumble have serious problems."
Many Democrats said they are enthusiastic about Townsend's campaign, but it was clear that Clinton was the big draw last night.
"We want Bill. We want to bring him back," said Sona Taylor of the Village of Cross Keys, who paid $100 to attend a reception. "People can't forget he was the last U.S. president elected by the people. [George W. Bush] has been elected by the Supreme Court."