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The man behind the campaign Sen. Clinton gains traction by linking her bid to the ideas of her husband

Rallying a crowd of 1,800 people who had paid at least $100 to see her, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton ran through a list of changes she would enact as president -- until the microphone suddenly turned her voice into a shrill, electronic rasp and then, just as suddenly, went dead.

Behind her, the silver-haired man in the dark suit sprang into action, getting her another microphone, which turned out not to work, either. Finally, an aide handed the senator a functioning microphone, and the man in the dark suit -- her husband and the 42rd president of the United States -- again looked happy.

That episode at a Clinton fundraiser Monday night serves as a symbol of the role former President Bill Clinton appears to be playing in his wife's presidential campaign. He's in the background but never far away, ready to come to her aid whenever she needs help.

Most importantly, as Sen. Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic nomination gained steam, the former president ramped up his efforts to raise money for his wife -- who ended up just edging out Obama in the quarterly fundraising race.

Beyond the bottom line, Bill Clinton's two campaigns serve as a rhetorical storehouse for his wife, who routinely spices her speeches with phrases and concepts her husband made famous.

And she is not at all shy about noting that her husband will be able to help her if she is elected. In fact, she has even said she would "put him to work" in some unspecified role.

"As she faces stiffer competition, she is turning to the most popular Clinton -- her husband -- to advance her cause," said Robert McClure, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.

All told, the former president has appeared at upwards of 20 fundraisers for his wife's campaign, although the former and maybe future first couple have appeared together at only three of them.

Bill Clinton most often hosts small-scale, big-bucks dinners for 30 or 40 people, but it's the larger events, like Monday's, where the Clintons appear together, that have the potential to bring in the most money.

And by mid-March, Sen. Clinton needed all the money she could get in her surprisingly tight dash for cash against Obama, the charismatic Illinois senator who was cutting deep into the Clintons' fundraising base in Hollywood and elsewhere.

Enter Bill Clinton. On March 18, he and his wife did a joint fundraiser in a Manhattan hotel that pulled in more than $1 million. Two days later, they did the same thing in Washington and pulled in about $2.7 million.

And on March 23, the former president did what he had done twice in February: He wrote to the people on his wife's campaign e-mail list and pleaded for funds.

"We have just eight days to show the strength and depth of our support," the former president wrote. "I hope you'll contribute to Hillary's campaign, and please donate today, before the critical March 31 deadline."

Obama made a similar last-minute campaign push but ended up about $257,000 behind Clinton in newly raised campaign money, not counting the $10 million Clinton transferred from her Senate campaign.

Asked if President Clinton's efforts were the reason she beat Obama in fundraising, Clinton strategist Howard Wolfson said: "I don't know the accuracy of that, but he has been enormously helpful."

Meanwhile, the former president's spokesman, Jay Carson, minimized the impact that he had on Sen. Clinton's fundraising.

"The vast, vast majority is money raised by her," Carson said.

Bill Clinton's fundraising efforts come as no surprise to political experts, who note that it's something he is very good at.

"Clearly the way in which the former president is being utilized is mainly for fundraisers," said Herbert Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University. "That's very different than having him be a public spokesman for her."

Indeed, the former president seems bent on staying in the shadows, lest he steal the spotlight from his wife. At Monday's fundraiser, he spoke very briefly before introducing his wife as the candidate who "is the most qualified, who is the best prepared, who has the best ideas."

From there, the senator delivered a much longer and more detailed stump speech in which she paid homage to her husband.

"We need a president again who sets goals for our country and brings people together; then we roll up our sleeves and make progress. I know that from having watched a president do that for eight years," she said.

That's not all she has learned from, or along with, her husband.

Just as candidate Bill Clinton talked about working toward universal health care, so does candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Just as Bill Clinton talked about "reinventing government," Hillary Clinton said in an April 13 speech: "We also need to go back to doing what was done during the Clinton administration with the Reinventing Government initiative."

And just as Bill Clinton said he would work to help people "who work hard and play by the rules," Hillary Clinton repeats the phrase almost like a mantra, starting with her campaign announcement Jan. 20 and in several speeches and fundraising letters since then.

"I think this shows that Sen. Clinton and President Clinton have been having discussions about these issues for 30-some odd years, and they both think that real change and great progress can be made," Wolfson said.

It also shows that Sen. Clinton thinks it makes political sense to associate herself very closely with her husband, several experts said.

"Bill Clinton is just crazy popular among Iowa Democrats," said Gordon Fischer, the former party chairman in the state that will pick the first convention delegates in January.

Associating herself with her husband's unique brand of Democratic centrism also will help insulate her from Republican attacks that she's too liberal to be president, Asher said.

But Richard Collins, a Texas Republican who's in charge of an anti-Hillary Web site called www.stophernow.com, noted that the former president's influence on the campaign "cuts both ways."

"Bill Clinton -- he's a lightning rod for Republicans," said Collins, who added that the former president's impeachment and the numerous other controversies of his presidency will certainly resurface in his wife's campaign.

The senator, however, obviously sees her husband as a huge asset. When she's asked how she will utilize her husband in her administration, she essentially says: where he can help.

"I can't think of a better cheerleader for America than Bill Clinton, can you?" she said at an event in Marshalltown, Iowa, last weekend. "He has said he would do anything I asked him to do. I would put him to work."

That's a far cry from the attitude then-Vice President Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee, showed during his campaign. Gore distanced himself from Clinton and minimized the president's campaign role, and even people involved in the Gore effort now concede that was most likely a mistake.

"Gore probably should have done more to connect himself to the Clinton approach," conceded Chris Lehane, who served as Gore's campaign spokesman. "Hillary has obviously taken that lesson to heart."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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