Read Excerpt: 'Game Change' by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Clinton's decision to forego the 2004 race would prove fateful. It is impossible to know whether Hillary would have won either the Democratic nomination or the White House—although the strategists behind Bush's reelection considered her formidable in a way they never did Dean or Kerry. But her entry would have scrambled the Democratic race severely. By closing a door, she opened another, inadvertently setting off a chain reaction that would have enormous consequences for her deferred ambitions. The absence of Clinton in the race left the road clear for Kerry to stage his surprising resurgence. The stunning victory over Dean in Iowa. The landslide in New Hampshire. The knockout blow on Super Tuesday that sealed the nomination and put Kerry in a position to make a decision as unlikely as it was momentous: the tapping of an unknown Illinois state legislator to give the keynote address that summer at the Democratic National Convention.

THE SELECTION OF OBAMA had yet to be announced when Bill Clinton rolled into Chicago on July 2, 2004. The former president was passing through on the book tour for his memoir, My Life, which was burning up the bestseller lists even more scorchingly than his wife's had done—a million copies sold its first week on the street. The weather was oppressive that day, criminally muggy, and Clinton was ridiculously overscheduled. So, by the time Bill arrived at his last event, an Obama fund-raiser at the home of billionaire real estate mogul Neil Bluhm, he was exhausted, cranky, and feeling every bit his age. But after heading upstairs at the Bluhm house to freshen up and meet Barack and Michelle, he rallied and gave a juicily Clintonian introduction for Obama, praising his potential to the heavens. When Clinton was done, Obama stepped up and responded with a self-deprecating reference to his meager income relative to the piles of dough that Clinton's book was hauling in: "My life would probably be a lot better if I was just finishing up this book tour," Obama deadpanned.

Clinton laughed and then, being Clinton, reclaimed the floor.

"Sonny," he declared, "I'd trade places with you any day of the week!"

The poignancy of Clinton's comment would be hammered home all too soon. On the Monday night of the Democratic convention in Boston, the former president turned in a triumphal performance—and then saw his speech rendered a footnote to history the next evening by Obama's keynote, which catapulted Barack into the stratosphere. A month later, Clinton, after complaining of heart pains and shortness of breath, underwent an angiogram that revealed arterial blockages of such magnitude (90 percent in several places) that his doctors scheduled him for surgery. On September 6, he was subjected to a quadruple bypass, his breastbone cut open, chest pulled apart, heart stopped for seventy-three minutes. His recovery would be slow, arduous, and beset by complications. In some ways, he would never be the same again.

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