New ratings create buzz for Clinton

But it's unclear whether popularity will aid wife


DENVER -- From somewhere in the luncheon crowd, chants of "four more years" break out as Bill Clinton is introduced.

"We need a Bill Clinton style of leadership back in our country," Sen. Ken Salazar tells fellow Colorado Democrats, recalling Clinton's presidency as a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Clinton isn't running for office, but he might well be in the early phase of a White House comeback try unlike any other.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions incorrectly stated that Bill Clinton, who left office at 54, was the youngest former president in U.S. history. Theodore Roosevelt was 50 when he left office in 1909.
The Sun regrets the error.

Public approval for the way he handled his job as president has increased significantly in recent years, even among Republicans. A USA Today/Gallup poll this month put his job approval rating as president at 61 percent. (President Bush's was 36 percent in the same survey.)

Clinton is generating considerable buzz among party insiders as he tours the country, raising millions for Democrats and renewing contacts that could pay off handsomely for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, if, as expected, she runs for president.

For some voters, the prospect of sending Bill Clinton back to Washington, whether in a formal position or as a behind-the-scenes adviser, could be an asset for his wife's candidacy, Democrats say. But exactly what role he would play in her campaign, and in her administration if they returned to the White House, poses a complicated set of issues.

"On the one hand, [Bill Clinton] is a peerless political strategist with pretty close to perfect pitch," said Bill Galston, who was White House domestic policy director in Bill Clinton's first term. "On the other hand, it's extremely important for her to run her own campaign and to be seen as doing so. And those two large facts are in some tension with each other."

Nonetheless, Bill Clinton remains his wife's most important adviser.

"She talks to him multiple times a day, and she bounces most of the stuff off him," said Terry McAuliffe, who is very close to the Clintons.

Representatives of Hillary Clinton, who faces token opposition in her New York re-election contest this fall, would prefer to keep details of her husband's involvement quiet.

"That's not something we talk about," said Howard Wolfson, a key adviser to the senator, when asked whether the former president sits in on her strategy sessions. "It's fair to say that he is invested in and involved with her candidacy in the way that you would expect any spouse to be engaged in the campaign of the candidate."

McAuliffe, who was Bill Clinton's chief campaign fundraiser and later served as national Democratic chairman, said the former president participates in formal meetings of his wife's campaign organization rarely, "maybe once or twice a year."

For his part, Clinton says that if his wife becomes president, "I'll do whatever she wants," as he put it in response to an audience question recently in Little Rock, Ark.

For now, the Clintons maintain largely separate public schedules, avoiding side-by-side comparisons like the one at Coretta Scott King's funeral last winter, which can work to Hillary Clinton's disadvantage. But the former president rarely misses an opportunity to promote his wife.

Though he says he doesn't know whether she'll run, he told an Israeli TV station last fall that she would be a better president than he was in some ways because of her Senate experience and the eight years they spent in the White House. More recently, during a hectic, campaign-style day of events in Denver, he managed to put in a plug for her at every stop.

Clinton, the youngest former president in history when he left office, turns 60 this summer. After a slow recovery from heart surgery 18 months ago, he appears to be back in top form. His popularity is surging, whether out of nostalgia for the 1990s, contrasts with Bush or simply the passage of time.

Clinton says that the constitutional amendment that keeps him from seeking a third term has freed him to speak his mind.

"As long as I don't hurt Hillary, I don't care what they say about me," he likes to say.

His far-flung activities are an unusual blend of Jimmy Carter-like good works on a global scale combined with a seemingly nonstop speaking schedule, sometimes for eye-popping fees (about $150,000 an hour, for a total of $7.5 million last year, according to Hillary Clinton's latest financial disclosure report).

Occasionally, the Clintons seem to be in conflict. Last winter, Bill Clinton denied news reports that he had attempted to help the government of Dubai gain approval of an unpopular U.S. port deal that his wife strongly opposed. But he acknowledged that he had given Dubai advice, including ways it might try to counter the storm of opposition in Washington, while publicly endorsing his wife's efforts to require American ownership of U.S. port operations.

More often, the Clintons are in sync. Their speeches echo many of the same priorities. Both are emphasizing the need to end America's longtime dependence on imported oil, an issue on which he devoted relatively little effort during his presidency.

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