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Bill Clinton subdued in return to campaign trail

Former President Bill Clintspeaks campaign event Wednesday Sept. 12 2012 Orlando Fla. as he campaigns for President Barack Obama. (AP

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at a campaign event, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, in Orlando, Fla., as he campaigns for President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The free-wheeling and fiery Bill Clinton who stole the show at the Democratic Party’s convention showed up in Florida this week far more subdued.

The former president’s temperament appeared designed to match the moment. Clinton’s campaign swing on behalf of President Barack Obama coincided with two somber occasions: the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the tumultuous events in Libya that left four American diplomats dead.

In a nod to the tragedies, Clinton muted much of his direct criticism of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during campaign rallies in Miami and Orlando. But he did draw sharp and detailed contrasts between Obama and Republicans on a myriad of policies, including health care, education and the debt.

Clinton never mentioned the deaths of the Americans in Libya, perhaps trying to avoid interfering with the delicate diplomacy his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was dealing with back in Washington.

Chris Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three diplomats were killed Tuesday as protesters overran and burned the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

Clinton drew about 4,300 people to the two events in Florida, building on his well-received address at last week’s Democratic convention.

“What works is cooperation. What fails is constant conflict,” he said Wednesday in Orlando.

Clinton was talking about Obama’s economic vision, but he might as well have been talking about the complex relationship between the two men. They may not be close friends, but Obama and Clinton have bonded over the shared experience of the presidency. And they’ve largely healed their divisions from the 2008 Democratic primary when Obama defeated the former president’s wife.

But their freshly minted political alliance comes with risks for both men.

Clinton risks denting his sky-high favorability ratings by jumping back into the political fray. He learned that lesson when he campaigned for his wife in 2008 and came across at times as angry and out of touch with the current political landscape.

Some Democrats fear that the popular Clinton could overshadow Obama. A new Pew Research Center poll found that 29 percent of those surveyed said Clinton’s convention speech was the highlight of the party gathering, while just 16 percent called Obama’s speech the highlight.

Clinton won praise for delivering a forceful defense of the president’s economic policies and pressing the need for him to serve a second term. But the convention address revived a nagging frustration among Democrats who can’t understand why Obama hasn’t been able to make that case more clearly himself.

“Sometimes Obama speaks at a level that is only for the college-educated,” said Ray Vera, a Florida Democrat. Vera said Clinton’s convention speech compelled him to come see the former president speak Tuesday at an Obama campaign rally in Miami.

Unlike Obama, Vera said, Clinton speaks “with such calm and confidence” and in ways the average person can understand.

Obama himself joked this week that someone recommended he name Clinton “secretary of explaining stuff.”

The president’s aides either dismiss the risks that come with joining forces with Clinton or say they’re worth taking

With Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at its disposal, the president’s campaign now has three popular and persuasive surrogates who can fan out across battleground states. And Clinton shines with groups Obama sometimes struggles to connect with, particularly working-class whites and older voters.

In a true sign of Clinton’s popularity, Romney has decided not to try to fight against the former president. Instead, he’s trying to use him to highlight for voters what he says Obama is lacking.

“I think he really did elevate the Democrat convention in a lot of ways,” Romney said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” ‘‘And, frankly, the contrast may not have been as attractive as Barack Obama might have preferred if he were choosing who’d go before him and who’d go after.”

Unlike Obama, Romney can’t call on his party’s last occupant of the White House in this election. Former President George W. Bush remains a polarizing figure and Romney is seeking to distance himself from many of Bush’s policies, both foreign and domestic. Bush didn’t attend the Republican convention and isn’t expected to have any role in the fall campaign.

Clinton, on the other hand, is expected to campaign for Obama frequently between now and November. He’s likely to return to Florida again and is also expected to campaign in Ohio, Virginia and Iowa.

Obama’s team has also put Clinton, a prolific fundraiser, to work helping them close their money gap with Romney. Obama and Clinton have teamed up for two campaign fundraisers, and the former president is also helping Priorities USA Action, the struggling Obama “super” political action committee, raise funds.

It’s also something of a turnaround for Clinton, who left office with positive approval ratings for his handling of the presidency but negative ones for his personal character.

In a January 2001 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, 65 percent of Americans said they approved of the way Clinton was handling “his job as president,” while just 41 percent said that they approved “of Clinton as a person.”

Fast-forward to the present: A Gallup poll released last week showed Clinton was viewed favorably by 69 percent of Americans, including 43 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of independents. That’s his highest favorability rating in polls back to 1993.

Clinton, of course, has his own motivations for his full-throated support of Obama’s campaign. Those close to him say it’s no secret he’d like to help pave the way for another presidential run for his wife.



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