Bill Clinton Faces Sharp Scrutiny For Role In Hillary's Campaign

Bill Clinton's role in his wife's presidential campaign faced sharp scrutiny today, after it seemed to backfire as Barack Obama romped to a huge win in South Carolina.

Hillary Clinton was forced into a staunch defence of her husband after yesterday's lopsided vote, and admitted he probably went too far in castigating the Illinois Democrat and the media in a bare knuckle state campaign.

The ex-president's finger-wagging revived a question at the core of the Clinton candidacy - how to leverage his popularity with Democrats, while ensuring he does not morph into a sideshow.

His fiery showing in South Carolina garnered a crop of tabloid headlines in his wife's home state of New York, as front-pages blared "Wild Bill" "Shoot from the lip Bill Clinton, "Calm Down" and "Bigmouth of the South".

But Senator Clinton's camp dismissed reports the ex-president will step back from the campaign frontlines, even as critics argue he may have offered ammunition for her rivals, and hurt his wife's credibility as a leader in her own right.

"President Clinton is an enormous asset and incredibly popular in the Democratic Party," said Jay Carson, a Clinton spokesman, adding the former president would continue to forcefully make the case.

Senator Clinton has dismissed suggestions of a co-presidency, by saying she would send the ex-leader off on global goodwill missions, in a role his Scottish friends have dubbed 'first laddie'".

"It is my candidacy, I am the one asking the people of America to support me. I believe I stand on my own merits," Senator Clinton said in Tennessee yesterday.

But Bill Clinton's red faced anger in South Carolina, has rivals suggesting he would be a meddlesome power behind the throne in a Clinton restoration carrying all the baggage of his turbulent presidency.

"I frankly can't wait because the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I can't imagine - the American people can't imagine," said Mitt Romney, a leading Republican candidate last week.

So, the Clintons, who have always operated as a formidable political tag-team, must walk a delicate line.

"The question is, is this campaign about Hillary or Billary?" said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, Iowa.

"If it is going to be Billary, it is going to be tough for them to pull off."

The South Carolina primary could be interpreted as a stunning rebuke to Bill Clinton, as African-American voters went overwhelmingly for Senator Obama, despite entreaties from the man once dubbed 'the first black president'.

Some exit polling also suggested Bill Clinton's attacks on Senator Obama's record may have pushed wavering voters towards her rival.

"I was for Hillary, until Bill started to get involved against Obama," said Beth Rickenbacker, from Orangeburg, South Carolina, a one-time Clinton backer who switched in the dying hours of the primary campaign.

As the Democratic race goes nationwide, risks loom for the Clintons should they launch a full bore attack which could succeed, but be seen to snuff out the inspirational promise of her rival.

Such a tack could boost Senator Obama's campaign rationale, that the Clintons are emblematic of a discredited style of partisanship which has poisoned politics.

Clinton aides are seething that Senator Obama is ripping the legacy of the only Democrat to win two White House terms since World War II, and branded him less transformational than Republican icon Ronald Reagan.

"President Clinton challenged conventional wisdom in every conceivable way, and I think that was an indelible part of the presidency," said top Clinton aide Mark Penn.

Senator Obama must also be careful, analysts said, as he criticises a presidency which many working class Democrats - who have yet to warm to him - still remember fondly.

"It is going to be especially difficult and tough to do, running against the Clinton era," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

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