Bill's Comments Unhelpful to Wife's Campaign

Political strategists advise former president to keep quiet.


April 22, 2008 — -- Oops, he did it again.

With Sen. Hillary Clinton locked in a dogfight with Sen. Barack Obama for votes in today's crucial Democratic Pennsylvania primary, her husband and former U.S. president, Bill Clinton, stole the spotlight by loudly rehashing his controversial comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson.

"He would do the [Clinton] campaign good if he would just stop saying stuff like this," said Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist who worked on both the Al Gore and John Kerry campaigns. "There are plenty of times when he goes out and is very effective, but then he pops off in other ways that don't help."

In an interview Monday with Philadelphia radio station WHYY, Bill Clinton was asked about comments he made after Obama's South Carolina primary victory in January when he compared Obama's win to Jackson's primary wins in the state in 1984 and 1988.

The comments created a furor in January as some critics considered the remark to be a way of bringing attention to Obama's race. Bill Clinton fired up the issue again Monday by claiming the Obama campaign had purposefully misinterpreted his words.

"I think that they played the race card on me. And we now know, from memos from the campaign and everything, that they planned to do it all along," he said in a telephone interview with WHYY's Susan Phillips. "I was stating a fact, and it's still a fact."

The former president says the comment was "used out of context and twisted for political purposes by the Obama campaign."

Then, after the interview had concluded but the microphone had not yet been turned off, he said, "I don't think I should take any s-- from anybody on that, do you?"

Bill Clinton is often more active in his wife's campaign that she is, making seven or eight stops a day, consistently holding fundraisers and giving interviews.

But today, when an NBC reporter asked about his comments on the radio during a polling stop in Pittsburgh, the former president urged him to go back and listen to the interview again.

"This is a day about Election Day. Go back and see what the question was and what my answer was," said Bill Clinton, as he continued to shake hands despite reporters' badgering. "You have mischaracterized it just to get another cheap story to divert the American people from the real urgent issues before us."

Hillary Clinton was similarly tight-lipped on the campaign trail today, dodging a question about her husband's remarks and responding, "I think that we're going to stay focused on what voters are focused on."

Obama laughed off Clinton's accusation that his campaign "played the race card."

"So, former President Clinton dismissed my victory in South Carolina as being similar to Jesse Jackson and he is suggesting that somehow I had something to do with it," Obama said laughing. "Ok, well, you better ask him what he meant by that. I have no idea what he meant."

How much an effect his remarks will have on today's primary is hard to gauge, several political analysts told, but most agreed that his lack of restraint probably isn't helping things at campaign headquarters.

"[Bill Clinton] is an asset in the sense that Hillary wouldn't be there without him and he's been helpful in terms of fundraising, but the freelance commenting is not helpful," said Shrum. "He keeps saying things the campaign has to explain away or live with."

Tad Devine, a Democratic political consultant not involved in either campaign, told that Bill Clinton seems to suffer from knowing that when he talks, people listen.

"When you're president and particularly when you're ex-president, you feel very uninhibited saying things," said Devine. "People listen to you and your words are really taken seriously."

"[Bill Clinton] is just not constrained like most people in campaigns are," said Devine. "And when the attention is at a fever pitch any little thing that you say will be amplified."

Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who worked on the 2008 Mike Huckabee presidential campaign, told that he thinks Clinton is far more damaging than helpful to his wife's cause.

"Everything [Bill] has said of late has hurt his wife," said Rollins.

"The best thing for him to do is to go back to his library in Little Rock, Ark., and not talk until she's nominated or out of the race," he added.

Hillary Clinton may have caught a break because her husband's comments were made so close to the primary, timing that Devine says will make his remarks unlikely to sway voters.

"What today is about isn't persuasion, it's about mobilization," Devine told "It's about what 2 million people do in an election, not what one person says."