ALBANY, N.Y. – The bright lights of the Democratic convention offer John Kerry (search) an unrivaled national stage — and the challenge of sharing the limelight with scene-stealers Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton (search).
The former two-term president and one-time first lady and New York senator are the uber Democrats — revered by the party, reviled by Republicans and certain to get a reaction from swing voters either still offended by the Monica Lewinsky scandal (search) or wistful for the Clinton economic boom.
Democrat Al Gore kept his distance in 2000 and many in the party continue to debate whether it was a smart strategy. The Kerry campaign says it envisions a prominent role for the Clintons, although representatives of all three say no decisions have been made on what that might be — prime-time speech, first night or second, together or separately.
"They are good at both energizing the base and at reminding America that Democrats can be responsible stewards of the economy," said Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau.
Despite four terms in the Senate, Kerry has had to work at introducing himself to voters, and the charismatic Clintons could upstage him at the July convention in Boston. At least one Democrat said Kerry shouldn't be concerned.
"That's like saying the sun that makes your plants grow and makes everybody strong and gives life to the world is so big that when it shows up everybody tends to notice it," said former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat whose eloquence has stirred the party faithful at past conventions. "So what? What do you get from that sun? You get nourishment. You get life."
The imprimatur of Bill Clinton (search) could help Kerry with minorities, who have complained about their limited numbers on his campaign staff, while Hillary Rodham Clinton's support could boost the Democrat's standing with women voters.
Bill Clinton's appearance will come on the heels of the long-awaited release of his memoirs in June, with a first run printing of 1.5 million copies. The New York senator, who says she plans to seek re-election in 2006, has been mentioned as a vice presidential pick — a notion she dismisses — but more often is on the list of 2008 presidential candidates if Kerry falters.
Bill Clinton spokesman Jim Kennedy said the former president "looks forward to being as helpful as possible to John Kerry and our party." Hillary Rodham Clinton declined to be interviewed, but political aide Patti Solis Doyle said she "will do anything she is asked."
Harold Ickes, the senator's top political adviser and a former deputy White House chief of staff to President Clinton, said he has had discussions with the couple about helping Kerry.
"There will be members of the (Kerry) staff and the advisory council who will say Kerry may be overshadowed by Clinton speaking, and that will certainly weigh in the balance," Ickes said. "But I think the convention, as much as Democrats love Bill Clinton, they are going to be very much focused on their nominee and they'll give him a huge send-off."
Said Lee Miringoff, head of Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion: "It's hard to upstage the nominee, even for the Clintons."
Kerry and his staff have concluded that it would do more harm to run from Bill Clinton, generating controversy and unwanted media attention, than it would to embrace him, recognizing that he is probably more valuable in exciting the base than a detriment among swing voters.
Campaign aides said Clinton is an astute politician who recognizes both his strengths and weaknesses as a surrogate. No decision has been made on a convention slot, but aides say it will undoubtedly be a high-profile assignment that will draw live network coverage.
"Clinton is the best advertisement for Democrats about what an economy should be, period," said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf who worked on Clinton's 1996 re-election effort.
Already Kerry has reached out to the Clintons for fund-raising help, and they have delivered. They've also offered advice on everything from campaign strategy to setting up a rapid-response "War Room" similar to the one crucial to Clinton's two winning presidential races.
Both Clintons spoke on the opening night of the party's 2000 national convention, she as a spanking-new candidate and he to deliver a farewell address to the party faithful. The Clintons then departed, leaving the stage and the convention to Gore, and to former President Jimmy Carter. It was Carter's first convention appearance since his 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan.
Whatever Kerry decides, the Clintons already have roles at the convention — they are automatic delegates from New York, based on his standing as a former president and hers as a member of the Senate.
To Kerry, Cuomo had this advice: "Whatever you can do to use them, big time, use them."