Campaigning for his wife, former President Clinton says that when they were starting out he was so struck by her intellect and ability he once suggested she should just dump him and jump into her own political career.
That didn’t happen, of course, and on Monday he gave an Iowa crowd his version of why it didn’t.
“I thought it would be wrong for me to rob her of the chance to be what I thought she should be,” said Clinton. “She laughed and said, ‘First I love you and, second, I’m not going to run for anything, I’m too hardheaded.'”
Hillary Rodham Clinton is running now, and husband Bill was stumping for her in the 2008 campaign’s leadoff caucus state — two days after rival Democrat Barack Obama got a full weekend’s worth of attention by bringing in talk show queen Oprah Winfrey to campaign for him.
The former president opened a two-day swing through Iowa on behalf of his wife, packing nearly 500 people into a theater on the campus of Iowa State University.
“She has spent a lifetime as a change agent when she had the option to do other things,” he said.
“I thought she was the most gifted person of our generation,” said Clinton, who said he told her, “You know, you really should dump me and go back home to Chicago or go to New York and take one of those offers you’ve got and run for office.”
Now that she’s a New York senator and in a tight Democratic contest — with Illinois Sen. Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — the former president said he wanted to persuade voters that she has “the best combination of mind and heart.”
He offered a self-deprecating view of the couple’s early life in Arkansas.
“When she came down there and we got married, I was a defeated candidate for Congress with a $26,000 salary and a $42,000 campaign debt,” said Clinton. “If she were half as calculating as someone said, that’s a really great way to run for president.”
In his latest Iowa swing, Clinton is bringing heavy attention to his wife, who is competing in the precinct caucuses that will launch the presidential nominating season on Jan. 3.
“It’s one thing to have good intentions; it is another thing entirely to change people’s lives,” Clinton said. “She’s the best non-incumbent I have ever had a chance to vote for. In my whole life I’ve never met anyone like her.”
While Clinton remains very popular among Democrats, his image is mixed in the wider population. An Associated Press-Yahoo poll last month showed that 54 percent of those questioned had a very or somewhat favorable view of the former president, while 43 percent had a very or somewhat unfavorable view.
“He did an excellent job as president and we need some changes,” said 82-year-old Morris Mericle, who attended Monday’s event and said he wanted to see a former president he had voted for. Still, Mericle was keeping his options open for next year.
“I have an open mind,” he said. “I have not decided, I’ll wait and listen to the debates.”
Maureen Ogle said she also wanted to keep her options open and was eager to sees a president about whom she has decidedly mixed views.
“I’m never going to forgive him for the way he humiliated his wife and daughter, but I would vote for him in a heartbeat,’ said Ogle. “He is one of two or three of the most powerful people in the world.”
Clinton was more than an hour late opening his swing in Ames, with campaign staffers alternately blaming the weather and airplane problems. Still, virtually everyone who showed up stuck around to hear a speech that was shorter than the wait.
“I’m out of politics now except every two years the Democrats kind of haul me out of the barn like an old horse to see if I can make it around the track one more time,” he said.
Clinton said he would understand if people assume he has a prejudice in the 2008 race. “I always tell people when I speak that you’re entitled to discount what I have to say,” he said. “I want to say a few things that are very personal.”
Later in the day, Clinton repeated his pitch to a spillover crowd of more than 400 at a YMCA gym in Newton, where he joked about his campaign schedule.
“They always send me to rural areas,” said Clinton. “I’ve got boots that have been worn and I know one end of a horse from the other.”
He rejected suggestions that touting his record as president amounted to trying to turn the clock back, as Obama has suggested.
“People say we shouldn’t refight the battles of the ’90s and I agree with that,” said Clinton. “I’d sure like to have some of the victories of the ’90s.”