Clinton back to add a bit of charisma to Democrat campaign

Like an old champion fighter on the comeback trail, Bill Clinton returned to the fray of the US election campaign yesterday ­ just seven weeks after the emergency heart surgery that threatened to sideline the most effective campaigner in American politics.

Up to 20,000 roaring and cheering supporters packed into the streets around Love Park in the centre of Philadelphia to see a much thinner and somewhat gaunt Mr Clinton add some charisma and political weight to John Kerry's campaign just a week before voters go to the polls.

Mr Clinton's performance may have been but a shadow of the bravura display he delivered at the Democratic convention in Boston this summer but his mere presence on the campaign trail delighted the crowds who screamed as he and Mr Kerry appeared on the stage.

"If that's not good for my heart I don't know what is," beamed Mr Clinton, putting his hand to his chest. He added: "From time to time I've been called the 'Comeback Kid'. In eight days, John Kerry is going to make America the Comeback Country."

With national polls showing Mr Kerry and George Bush neck and neck, the Massachusetts senator had turned to Mr Clinton to help appeal to undecided voters not just here in the battleground state of Pennsylvania but to that slim and dwindling demographic across the nation. He willingly accepted.

"I want to do this," Mr Clinton told ABC television ahead of yesterday's rally. "Senator Kerry asked me to do it. And I want to do it ... because it's close, and because I think it's important, and because the differences between the two candidates and the courses they will pursue in the next four years are so profound."

It was less than two months ago that Mr Clinton was forced to undergo quadruple bypass surgery. Had it not have been for that unforeseen setback the former president would have been a much more regular fixture on the campaign trail this year, unlike in 2000, when he was deliberately sidelined by Al Gore, who was worried his association with Monica Lewinsky would tarnish the campaign.

And while it was obvious yesterday that Mr Clinton was restraining himself, it was equally clear he had lost neither his unequalled ability to connect with a crowd or to deliver the sort of succinct and powerful verbal punch that the Kerry campaign has often lacked this summer.

"You've got clear choice between two strong men of clear convictions, of different philosophies and different choices [which will have] very different consequences for the state, the nation and the world," he declared. "The other side is trying to scare the undecided voters away from John Kerry. You better vote for the person who wants you to think and hope."

Having been on the back foot for several weeks, new polls suggest Mr Kerry may have edged slightly ahead of Mr Bush in the big three battleground states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. A Zogby poll yesterday gave Mr Kerry a 47-45 lead in Pennsylvania.

Strategists from the Kerry campaign believe Mr Clinton's presence could give them a boost with undecided voters: a poll commissioned by the Wall Street Journal gave him a 48 per cent positive rating, higher than either Mr Kerry or Mr Bush. His popularity is even higher among black voters and he has long been popular in the Philadelphia suburbs where he broke the Republican dominance in 1992.

But they were also counting on Mr Clinton's presence to remind voters of the boom years of the Nineties when unemployment was lower and the government had a surplus not a deficit. Mr Kerry was quick to claim America had been in a better economic situation when Mr Clinton was president.

He was also quick to praise the enthusiasm of Mr Clinton, whose recuperation has reportedly been slower than he and doctors had hoped. "He said he was going to do his darndest to get back before the end of the campaign," said Mr Kerry.

After yesterday's appearance Mr Clinton was due to appear at a function in Miami, Florida. Later today, he is due to appear at an event in Florida's Broward County, scene of the most heated controversy in 2000.

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