Bill Clinton tries a new role -- supporting actor

IOWA CITY, Iowa Wed Jul 4, 2007 1:40pm EDT

1 of 3. Democratic Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) carries a baby as her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, greets supporters during the 4th of July parade in Clear Lake, Iowa, July 4, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (Reuters) - After a career as the center of political attention, Bill Clinton finds himself playing unfamiliar roles on the campaign trail these days -- second fiddle and supportive husband.

On a three-day tour of the crucial early voting state of Iowa, the former president served as an opening act for the main attraction -- his wife and the 2008 Democratic presidential front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

As the brightest of Democratic stars and one of his generation's most talented politicians, Bill Clinton helped draw enthusiastic crowds and warm up the faithful.

But when it was time for the headliner to grab the microphone, he stepped back and his wife stepped up.

"We sort of changed roles now," he said on Tuesday at an outdoor rally in sweltering sun at the University of Iowa. "I'm kind of out of politics and I'm a little rusty, so you'll have to forgive me."

He pointed out a homemade sign in the back of the crowd.

"It's from a group I belong to. It says 'Fathers for Hillary,'" he said.

The Iowa tour is the first joint public campaign appearance for the couple since Hillary Clinton announced her bid for the White House in January. Bill Clinton has kept a low profile in order to keep the spotlight on his wife, and the campaign went to great lengths to keep it that way in Iowa.

The marquee touting the couple's appearance at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Monday night read "Hillary and Bill Clinton," as did tickets to the tour events.

The famously long-winded former president kept his introductions tight, running less than 10 minutes in Des Moines and Iowa City.

He recited her biography, informing the audience how Hillary Clinton turned down the big law firms when they graduated from law school and focused her efforts on behalf of civil rights, children and educational programs.

As first lady, she traveled the globe, met world leaders and helped change lives, he said.

"When I first met Hillary I told her ... she had the best combination of mind and heart. Thirty-five years later I am more convinced of it," he said, before hugging his wife and stepping to the side of the stage for her speech.

The tour comes as Hillary Clinton's campaign is trying to shore up support in the state that kicks off the 2008 Democratic nomination race in less than seven months. While Clinton has led national polls, she trails rival John Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, in Iowa.

She also trails rival Barack Obama, the Illinois senator, in fund raising after Obama reported a record-smashing second quarter.

Cat Breedlove, an unemployed electrician in Iowa City who was leaning toward supporting Clinton, said she was happy to see Bill Clinton out with his wife -- and just as happy to see him staying in the shadows during her campaign.

"He had his time," she said. "I'm glad she's up there. It's her time."

Many of the Democrats in the Iowa City crowd preferred to remember the roaring economy and relative peace of Clinton's leadership in the 1990s rather than the scandals and his impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

"He did a pretty good job, and he might have done some things I considered immoral but then a lot of people have," said Charlie Hull, an undecided Democrat who runs a house cleaning business in Iowa City.

She said she was drawn to the rally in part to see Bill Clinton. "Their strategy was to build up the crowd with him, and it worked with me," she said.

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