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January 7, 2008

Bill Not Holding Their Interest, Either

Earlier today, I noted that Hillary Clinton has a problem holding the interest of her audiences. Surprisingly, the New York Times reports that her husband has had the same problem of late. Fatigue seems to be the issue, but who's getting tired of whom?

Is this what it would have been like had Elvis been reduced to playing Reno?

Former President Bill Clinton has been drawing sleepy and sometimes smallish crowds at big venues in the state that revived his presidential campaign in 1992. He entered to polite applause and rows of empty seats at the University of New Hampshire on Friday. Several people filed out midspeech, and the room was largely quiet as he spoke, with few interruptions for laughter or applause. He talked about his administration, his foundation work and some about his wife.

“Hillary’s got good plans,” Mr. Clinton kept saying as he worked through a hoarse-voiced litany of why his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, is a “world-class change agent.” He urged his audience to “caucus” on Tuesday for Mrs. Clinton, before correcting himself (“vote”). He took questions, quickly worked a rope line and left.

Maybe the sluggish day was a blip. It was, in fairness, the day after Mrs. Clinton finished third in the Iowa caucuses, behind Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and John Edwards of North Carolina. Mr. Clinton was working on 30 minutes’ sleep. He traveled to New Hampshire from Iowa in the wee hours, and the university was on winter break.

But there was a similarly listless aura at the previous stop, in Rochester. And again, on Saturday in Bow, at just the sort of high school gym that the master campaigner used to blow out. Only about 225 showed up in Bow — about one-third the capacity of the room — to hear Mr. Clinton hit his bullet points on the subprime lending crisis, $100 barrels of oil and how “10 of Hillary’s fellow senators have endorsed her.”

The Hillary campaign can't figure out how to use Bill. When he talks about Hillary, the crowds go limp. When he talks about himself, people respond -- and they compare Hillary to Bill. Mark Leibovich reports that Bill has attempted to de-celebritize himself by making his speeches more quickly and with less charisma so as to keep from outshining his wife. But what does Bill offer outside of his charisma and his celebrity?

Could anyone have predicted that Bill couldn't get a room more than one-third full anywhere in New Hampshire the week before its primary?

Fatigue seems to have hit the Clinton campaign, but it's not the candidate or her team that has gotten tired. It's the audience. Hillary bet that the country -- especially Democrats -- had a great deal of enthusiasm for the return of the Clintons to the White House. If the Constitutional bar didn't exist, they may have been right if Bill had been the candidate. The enthusiasm doesn't exist for Hillary, and now that she has managed to single-handedly derail herself over the last two months, most of them want an end to the Clintons.

And while Bill tries to dim the wattage and Hillary tries to out-wonk the field, Barack Obama continues to inspire. He's the Bill Clinton in this race, and Hillary has become Dick Gephardt.


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