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The ties that bind Clinton, Buffalo Former president will meet friends, attend Sabres game in the city that embraced him during tough times

Bill Clinton returns to the waiting arms of an old family friend today, a city that embraced him in the darkest days of his presidency.

It was here, a day after his 1999 State of the Union address and a month after his impeachment, that Clinton appeared in Marine Midland Arena before 22,000 screaming, flag-toting fans eager to forgive and forget his flaws.

"I looked out at that crowd and I just felt, well, you know, the country still wants me to do the job, and that's good," Clinton said in a brief telephone interview Tuesday.

Seven years later, Clinton is returning to Buffalo this afternoon, this time as a former president turned international statesman.

In the last few years, he has opened his presidential library, written a best-selling memoir and survived quadruple-bypass surgery. And most ambitiously of all, he has set up a foundation that aims to tackle problems such as childhood obesity, AIDS in Africa and the lack of business development in inner cities.

"I wanted to do things in areas that I cared about as president, where I could still have an impact," Clinton said.

And in doing so, he found a partner in B. Thomas Golisano, the billionaire owner of the Buffalo Sabres and a possible Republican candidate for New York governor.

Clinton's Buffalo visit is his thank-you, of sorts, to Golisano, who helped underwrite the former president's Clinton Global Initiative conference last September in New York City.

The conference brought together international leaders, CEOs and A-list Hollywood celebrities for three days to discuss issues such as trade, global warming and preventing war.

Clinton's goal wasn't just to discuss problems, but to do something about them, and that appealed to Golisano.

"I believe in President Clinton's vision," Golisano said. "This is a new step for me, but I think the Clinton Global Initiative's practical approach will yield workable solutions, and I am happy to be a part of this effort."

Golisano's efforts will bring Clinton to the owner's box at HSBC Arena tonight, but the ex-president's appearance in Buffalo is not just a courtesy call.

It speaks of the special relationship between Clinton and Buffalo, likely to be evidenced by the thousands of Buffalo residents who will try to catch a glimpse of Clinton.

"I think Buffalo represents the best of America's traditional values," Clinton said. "I love the people there, and how, despite the continuing struggles, they show such loyalty to the community."

Buffalo showed loyalty to Clinton, too, when he visited the city in January 1999, a month after the House impeached him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Along with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton -- now a Democratic senator from New York then-Vice President Al Gore and Gore's wife, Tipper, Clinton seemed ecstatic at cheering masses that greeted him.

"There was some real affection there that day," said John J. LaFalce, retired Democratic congressman from the Town of Tonawanda who helped organize the event. "I think he was struck by the sheer numbers of people and the obvious warmth and affection of the crowd."

LaFalce said Clinton's ties to the region actually date back to his days as governor of Arkansas, when he and his wife vacationed at Chautauqua Institution.

He said the former president also enjoyed a close relationship with the late C. Victor Raiser, a Buffalo native who served as the Democratic Party's national finance chairman. His wife, Molly, later served as Clinton's chief of protocol in the White House.

"They always had a Buffalo connection," LaFalce said of the Clintons. "There were always things Buffalo going on around them."

Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello still laughs about the surprise phone call he got in November 2002 from Clinton, out of office nearly two years, who had just delivered a speech in the Buffalo Convention Center and wanted to stop by City Hall to say hello.

"He came over and we sat in my office and talked about everything from City Hall's architecture to New York State politics," Masiello said.

In his post-White House life, however, Clinton has turned his attention to broader issues. Like former President Jimmy Carter, Clinton has made himself something of a free-ranging ambassador to the world, ready to help when the need arises.

Last December he was appointed the U.N.'s special envoy to tsunami-ravaged Southeast Asia and worked with former President George H.W. Bush to raise money for the region. The bipartisan duo partnered again to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The Clinton Global Initiative is billed as a nonpartisan forum in which the world's most powerful try to tackle problems such as poverty, climate change, religious conflict and governance.

The first conference netted pledges of $2 billion for aid and economic development programs.

Tonight in HSBC Arena, Clinton will not only get a little lesson on hockey, but he and Golisano will discuss next year's Clinton Global Initiative meeting.

Clinton said he expects his efforts to produce results.

"I kind of got into this thinking I've always been reasonably good at organizing things, at getting people together and raising money," Clinton said. "After a while, it all adds up."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com mbecker@buffnews.com and jzremski@buffnews.com

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