Kerry campaign welcomes Clinton fund-raising clout

Ex-president to appear at `unity' event

popularity vs. past scandals weighed

March 25, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Bill Clinton is returning to the national stage this week to do what he does best: raise money - lots of it - for Democrats.

As a featured speaker at a Democratic "unity" fund-raiser in Washington tonight, Clinton is taking on the role he eschewed in the 2000 presidential campaign: an elder statesman who can put a familiar and spectacularly popular face on the fight against George W. Bush.

Whereas Al Gore's campaign kept Clinton at arm's length, John Kerry has invited him into the fray. And the former president, his aides say, is ready to oblige.

"He intends, and I think the [Kerry] campaign wants him, to be very active," said Steve Richetti, a Clinton adviser. "He remains a popular figure and an important figure, in particular, in defining the big issues and the big challenges that the country faces. ... He's going to be used that way, and he's happy to be used that way."

It's an obvious role for the former president, whose insatiable appetite for politics might be surpassed only by his renown among the party faithful.

And it's clear why Kerry has tapped Clinton for help: The presumptive nominee wants to narrow a yawning money gap of more than $100 million between himself and Bush. Clinton, along with his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is seen as the best weapon in the Democrats' fund-raising arsenal.

"We've offered to help in any way we possibly can," Senator Clinton said this week. The former president has "a lot on his plate," she said, noting that he is finishing his memoirs - due out this year - and doing work with his presidential foundation. "But we are going to do whatever we can. We think it's so important to try to elect John Kerry."

The former president's fund-raising muscle already has paid off. An e-mail money solicitation last week from Clinton on Kerry's behalf raked in $2 million in a day, according to the campaign. Tonight's soiree is expected to draw a record $10 million in individual donations for the party, said Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the national Democratic Party.

"He's in rarefied air" among Democrats, Cabrera said. "President Clinton occupies a unique space in American politics, and we welcome his support whenever he can provide it."

The Kerry campaign says Clinton is an asset to the candidate, especially in highlighting what they view as Bush's failures and reminding voters of the robust economic times that marked the last Democratic administration.

"His role in this election hasn't really been determined, but he is an important national leader on a variety of issues that are important to the American people, such as the economy and jobs," said Stephanie Cutter, a Kerry spokeswoman. "He'll play an active role."

But Kerry's decision to ask for Clinton's help carries risks. Campaign aides are still weighing how much they want Clinton involved in Kerry's bid. Some strategists and political scholars caution that Clinton's blazing charisma could overshadow the Massachusetts senator, whom critics have labeled aloof.

"The obvious advantage is that he's a money magnet," said John J. Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican Party official. "If you can't have an incumbent president, an ex-president is the next best thing."

But Kerry must be careful, Pitney said. "He needs Clinton's magnetism, but he wants to avoid being `Bill Clinton junior.'"

Pitney and others say the presence of Clinton - as polarizing a figure as he is popular - on the campaign trail also could stir up memories not just of his successes as a president, but also of the scandals that dogged him in office. If it does, Clinton could end up mobilizing the Republican base just as intensely as he does the Democrats.

"Republican oppo guys are looking for as many pictures of Kerry next to Clinton as they can find," said Pitney, a former Republican National Committee Party research director, using the shorthand for "opposition research" - or the dirt that campaigns seek to unearth about their opponents.

But some Democrats brush aside those concerns. They note that many still regret Gore's decision in 2000 to distance his campaign from Clinton, who they say could have helped tip the balance in Southern states and helped keep the White House in Democratic hands.

"Many of us felt he could have been greater utilized in the 2000 campaign," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. "There is very little downside to President Clinton being involved."

Gore is also scheduled to speak at tonight's "Democratic unity" event, to be held at the National Building Museum.

Clinton will be walking a fine line as he elevates his profile in the campaign, being actively involved without seeming to promote his own or his wife's ambitions. Clinton's aides say he is eager to help. But they hasten to add that it's up to Kerry - not the former commander in chief - to decide how best to capitalize on Clinton's strengths.

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