SPARTANBURG, South Carolina (Reuters) - The resurgence of the old Bill Clinton, flushing with anger and wagging his finger as he fights for his wife’s presidential bid, has cast a shadow over her campaign and could mar his new image as a global statesman.
On Friday, Hillary Clinton herself said her husband had told her he may have gone too far. “He said several times yesterday that maybe he got a little bit carried away,” she told CBS’s “Early Show.”
She was speaking one day before South Carolina votes to select a party candidate for the November election, having seen her early hopes for an easy win in the state-by-state process dashed by mixed results in early state contests.
The former president, who has built on his reputation as a world figure through international charity work since leaving office seven years ago, has done what he said he would not do again -- get back down and dirty on a campaign trail.
This time, of course, he is acting on behalf of Hillary, not himself, but senior Democrats worry that the party itself could be damaged as well as Hillary’s struggle.
In Spartanburg, where he addressed a crowd of Hillary supporters on Friday, the former president exuded good will to Hillary’s opponents, avoiding the kind of sharp comments and eruptions that marked some appearances elsewhere.
“I like this election because I haven’t had to be against anybody. I like these people who are running... I like the people who have withdrawn,” he said to chuckles.
But the issue of his role in the campaign was clearly on his mind. When one man stood and said: “I think Hillary’s got something that I know nobody else got and that’s you,” he responded to laughter: “Some people think that’s hurting her.”
He left the meeting without speaking to reporters.
Clinton, now 61, was known for emotional political campaigns and sometime volcanic bouts of anger during his eight-year term but has shown a new mellowness out of office. He has energetically embraced his role as international philanthropist through the Clinton Global Initiative.
But flashes of the old bare-knuckle campaigner erupted during early contests in New Hampshire and Nevada, especially after Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, an African American, won the first contest in Iowa and threatened to thwart Hillary’s ambitions.
He dismissed Obama’s contention of consistently opposing the Iraq war as a “fairy tale.” On Wednesday he upbraided a CNN reporter who asked him to comment on a suggestion that Clinton campaign tactics had raised the issue of race. Clinton said reporters were being fed such questions by Obama’s campaign.
“So they just spin you up on this, and you happily go along. The people don’t care about this. They never ask about it. And you are determined to take this election away from them,” he said, waving his finger at the reporter. Video clips of the exchange have been viewed widely on the Internet.
The Dallas Morning News editorial page felt compelled to comment, writing that “there’s something disconcerting, even diminishing, about watching a former president get down and dirty on the campaign trail.”
For Americans the finger-wagging recalled Clinton’s similar gesture when on television he furiously denied accusations -- later proved true -- of his having had sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky when he was president.
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, a powerful black congressman who has vowed to stay neutral in the race, told the political Web site Huffington Post that Clinton’s outspoken campaign tactics may damage his reputation in the long-term.
Commentator John Gappel of the Financial Times, said Clinton had “adopted tactics that, if he does not curb himself soon, may tarnish his global brand irreparably. That would be a shame, not only for him but also for the causes that he has placed his weight behind.”
Clinton still remains a hugely popular figure among core Democrats -- especially in small towns in the South. He was given standing ovations at South Carolina events where he spent hours discussing policy details and shaking hands.
Polls give Obama the lead going into the South Carolina vote, but the result, and the impact of Bill Clinton’s interventions, will only be known when the votes are counted on Saturday night.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Ed Stoddard in Dallas; Editing by David Storey