Democrats unleash 'big dog' Clinton

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The Independent US

The "Big Dog", as they call him, is finally being let off the leash. From early next week, President Bill Clinton will be out on the stump each and every day, lending his famous charisma and tactical skills to his embattled Vice-President, Al Gore. He may not return to Washington until it is all over, on 8 November.

The "Big Dog", as they call him, is finally being let off the leash. From early next week, President Bill Clinton will be out on the stump each and every day, lending his famous charisma and tactical skills to his embattled Vice-President, Al Gore. He may not return to Washington until it is all over, on 8 November.

That Mr Clinton will be campaigning for Mr Gore at all is a victory for him, and for state-level Democratic Party leaders who had been pressing, with an insistence verging on desperation, for the President to be let loose on the trail.

With Mr Gore still hovering one or two points behind Mr Bush in the polls, they could not understand why the VicePresident was not deploying the one person they believed could clinch victory. Wherever Mr Gore has campaigned in the past week, many a rank and file Democrat has been heard to urge: "Bring out the big guy!"

As part of his week's cross-country tour, Mr Clinton will spend a full two days trying to solidify Mr Gore's support in California. That state, with its 54 electoral college votes, is still seen as safe for Mr Gore, but his poll margin has narrowed sharply in the past two weeks: a double-digit lead has been cut to between 7 and 5 points, only just outside the polls' margin of error. A top Gore adviser in the state even accused the Vice-President of taking the state for granted and warned that he risked losing it without a change in strategy.

The White House would not say whether Mr Gore had actually asked Mr Clinton for help or even whether he had given his approval. But in a fleeting sign that he was at least graciously accepting the President's support, Mr Gore yesterday referred to "Bill Clinton" by name during a campaign speech in West Virginia, giving him credit for the achievements of his two terms as President.

Throughout his campaign, but especially since the party convention, Mr Gore has consistently avoided mentioning Mr Clinton by name, calling him "the President" or referring simply to the "Clinton-Gore administration". More often, he has written his association with the administration out of the script altogether. "I stand here tonight," he said at the convention, "as my own man" - saying that he was campaigning on his plans for the future, not on his past record.

Giving a guarded welcome to Mr Clinton's involvement, Mr Gore's spokesman, Chris Lehane, said that he would be campaigning not just for the Vice-President but for all the party's candidates. "He will be out there for all Democrats. We're glad to see him out there," he said, while reiterating that Mr Gore was "running as his own man, on his own agenda and in his own voice".

Aside from the two days in California, the precise schedule for Mr Clinton's cross-country trip has yet to be finalised. But it is expected to also take in some of the marginal states of the Mid-West and South, including his own home state of Arkansas. The state where he served six terms as governor and is already planning his presidential library could be the first or second stop on his tour. Another early destination will be Louisville in Kentucky, a city with immense sympathy for Mr Clinton that was chosen by the White House for his first trip out of Washington after his Monica Lewinsky confession. Though small states, with only 14 electoral college votes between them, both Arkansas and Kentucky could be critical if the presidential race remains as close as the polls suggest it currently is.

The resistance to deploying Mr Clinton primarily came from members of the Gore camp, who feared their candidate would be upstaged by the natural talent of the campaigner-in-chief. Just by appearing, it was argued, Mr Clinton would remind voters that their outgoing president combined brains and charm - attributes split between the two current contenders for his job.

Some Democratic Party consultants were also said to have counselled caution after surveys in a selection of marginal states apparently showed that Mr Clinton's unsavoury personal conduct would outweigh his achievements among still uncommitted voters. That is not so in California, however, where Mr Clinton is seen as the one person who can get the vote out for Mr Gore.

The Bush camp described the emergence of Mr Clinton as "a desperation move by Gore" and indicated that they would have no qualms about exploiting Mr Clinton's record of personal flaws in the last frenetic days of campaigning. Mr Bush himself, however, who has referred to the "Shadow" over the Gore campaign, was said to interpret the news from the White House as a virtual declaration of war: Bush versus Clinton all over again, and the sweet prospect of a son avenging his father's defeat.

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