WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidates are dropping the golden name "Bill Clinton (search)," hoping to scoop up the support of voters who'd like nothing more than a Clinton-era economic comeback and other good things associated with his presidency.
Clinton has studiously avoided endorsing any of the Democrats running for the White House, but he has been advising some of them.
The campaign of fellow Arkansan Wesley Clark (search) has trumpeted his connection with Clinton, saying the former president advises him on a regular basis, reviews position papers, analyzes polling data and even helped steer a major donor to Clark.
Other contenders are quick to say they, too, are getting on the horn with Clinton.
Clinton's misbehavior with Monica Lewinsky (search) and the impeachment drama that followed once had many Democrats trying to scatter out of his shadow. Not now. His economic record and political skills have proved too strong a draw.
"Even if you didn't like him privately, you'd have to say you did publicly to be popular," said Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant and former top Clinton campaign adviser and White House staffer. "Any candidate would do well" to say Clinton is advising them.
"It's not so much that they are looking for his endorsement," explains Begala. "They are learning from him and trying to emulate him. You'd be a fool not to."
Sen. Joe Lieberman was one of the first Democrats in Congress in 1998 to denounce Clinton's "disgraceful behavior" with Lewinsky.
Yet, Lieberman is styling himself as the true inheritor of Clinton's legacy, even going this week to the spot where Clinton made his 1992 "last dog dies" speech in Dover, N.H. -- turning a corner in a primary campaign that was faltering over questions about womanizing and draft-dodging.
"Back then, the middle class was taking a pounding," Lieberman said, reaching for Clinton's centrist banner. "They felt deserted. And Bill Clinton stood up and promised, 'I'll be here for you until the last dog dies.'
"Twelve years and one Bush later, that's our challenge again today."
Lieberman talks to Clinton "on a regular basis," said Jano Cabrera, Lieberman campaign spokesman, declining to give details.
Howard Dean's campaign chimes in on the Clinton association, as well. "Governor Dean and President Clinton have known each other for a long time," said Jay Carson, Dean campaign spokesman. "Governor Dean considers President Clinton a friend and frequently seeks advice from him."
Rep. Dick Gephardt is also hitching his star to Clinton. He invoked Clinton's name five times in the last debate, twice asserting, "I led the fight for the Clinton economic program in the '90s."
Sen. John Edwards' spokesman Roger Salazar said Edwards also has talked to Clinton "on a number of occasions seeking advice on policy matters."
"He's called him before a tax-cut speech, or a health care speech, to get advice on those issues," he said.
As for the Clark campaign and others trying to tap Clinton's popularity with Democrats, Salazar said, "Given the great deal of respect Democrats have for President Clinton, a lot of campaigns would like to have that impression."
Although veterans of the Clinton years are spread among the candidates, Clark has attracted the strongest mix of Clinton allies from Arkansas and strategists from his two presidential campaigns.
"I just know he's been available on a moment's notice to give us advice, to respond to any anxieties we've got and to serve as a connector for us," said Clark campaign chairman Eli Segal, a Clinton associate himself.
He also cited a Texas fund-raiser referred to Clark's campaign by Clinton, while emphasizing that the former president has helped others, too.
David DiMartino, Sen. John Kerry's campaign spokesman, said it's not surprising Clark would get help like that from Clinton.
"Clark's never run before so he would need help finding donors," he said. "John Kerry has raised money nationally before. He has national fund-raising contacts that Wes Clark doesn't have simply because he is new to the process."