MASON CITY, Iowa >> Bill Clinton came to the vote-rich city of Mason City on Wednesday night and recounted his wife’s life experiences, recited her policy ideas, and ripped into the Republicans a bit. But what Clinton used to do so well — and what Hillary Clinton needs, only days before the Iowa caucuses Monday — was nowhere to be found: a polished, piercing critique of an opponent, in this case Bernie Sanders.
At an event in Las Vegas last week, Clinton, 69, looked smaller and his voice seemed weaker than in past campaigns, and people had to strain to hear him at times.
He was at his best as he finessed the intricacies of politics and policy, but he occasionally meandered, leaving the audience, including some who had lined up for hours to see him, seeming more politely attentive than inspired.
At a critical moment when the former president is again answering the call to try to energize his wife’s campaign, even some of Clinton’s admirers are wondering if he has lost some of that old Clinton magic.
“He seemed perfunctory, looked gaunt, didn’t seem to captivate the crowd,” said Jon Ralston, a veteran political commentator in Nevada, who attended a campaign event by Clinton in Reno last Friday. “I have seen him speak many times, and he just didn’t seem to be the same guy. He could still summon stats and an anecdote or two, but not with the same verve.”
Clinton still shows flashes of brilliance. On Wednesday night, he acknowledged the appeal of the fractious Republican race in one breath, then eviscerated its candidates in the next.
“It may be entertaining, but it doesn’t have a lick of impact on how you live,” Clinton said, emphasizing those last three words and pausing between each one.
It is still early enough in the race for Clinton to warm up. (And he can take some time to warm up.) A more subdued Bill Clinton may not be such a bad thing either, say some Democrats, who cringe as they recall the distraction of his piping-hot words about Barack Obama in the 2008 race.
Yet the Clinton of lore, the once-in-a generation political natural who fought back to win his party’s nomination in 1992 and came through in clutch moments with great speeches over the years, has yet to appear.
In 1992, in a speech at a New Hampshire Elks lodge just before the state’s primary, he drove grown men to tears as he described their economic struggles. He memorably promised that if voters supported him, he would fight for them as president until “the last dog dies.”
Friends of Clinton’s who have seen him on the trail recently say that the ebullient energy he is known for — whether addressing a crowd or spending an hour on a rope line with voters — has matured into an elder statesman’s self-assurance. He may not electrify a room the way he once did, they say, but he is still an effective advocate for Hillary Clinton.
“His age, his heart surgery, his veganism — I think it’s all brought a calmness into his life,” said George Bruno, a former Democratic Party chairman in New Hampshire and longtime ally of Clinton, referring to the former president’s quadruple bypass operation in 2004 and his strict plant-based diet. While some friends say Clinton would look zippier if he ate the occasional cheeseburger — an old favorite — others say he has never been healthier, with his weight down and his heart in excellent condition.
“He’s not as fiery as he once was, but he has an air of real self-confidence,” Bruno said.
Charismatic and soulful, and with an emotional force that could transfix voters, Clinton was among the most gifted of modern presidents at reading an audience and making points in a plain-spoken yet artful way. He thought of his speeches as “little talks,” he told friends, in which he could tell stories and share ideas in a conversational manner that people could relate to while never feeling condescended to. He was not a shouter, like Hillary Clinton and Sanders can be. Rather, he would squeeze every word for maximum effect, mixing in humor and smiles, and train his eyes on audience members to make them feel that he was talking directly to them.
He could also shrewdly dismantle an opponent, but so far, Clinton does not seem to be relishing the fight. He has chosen to shrug off recent attacks from the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, and has been relatively mild in his critiques of Sanders.
Allies say that he does not see any need to fully engage either man, believing that Hillary Clinton can handle them. And he wants to avoid giving any grist to her opponents, recalling how the Obama campaign exploited Bill Clinton’s remark in 2008 describing Obama’s statement that he opposed the Iraq war as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”
“I think he’s become more cautious, more tentative, and less unabashed,” said Doug Schoen, a former adviser and pollster to Bill Clinton. “Going negative just isn’t his strength in her races. His strength is developing a positive and empathetic narrative for why Mrs. Clinton should be president.”
Yet some voters who have listened to Clinton’s speeches over the decades, on television or at small-scale campaign events, said he had less magnetism recently than they remembered.
“He’s more low-key than he used to be, really keeping to the facts rather than making that old emotional connection,” Karen Janes, 67, of Exeter, N.H., said after listening to Clinton speak there this month.
These days, Bill Clinton’s remarks can be plodding, even rambling at times. By the 30-minute mark Wednesday night, some people were yawning and others checking their phones as he mentioned raising the minimum wage (with far less intensity than Sanders’ passionate plea for $15 an hour) and described Hillary Clinton’s plans for new Wall Street regulations.
After the Mason City event, several Clinton supporters said the former president had made a good case for his wife, while other voters said they had not heard anything to pull them away from Sanders, who also held a rally in Mason City on Wednesday night, drawing 1,110 people, about triple the size of the former president’s crowd.
“I’ll probably still go with Bernie,” said Courtney Johnson, 23, a social worker from nearby Osage. “I just didn’t hear how Hillary would take the country in a new direction.”
Still, as Bill Clinton starts a campaign swing on Iowa up to Monday night’s caucuses, he remains very popular among likely Democratic caucusgoers, with 87 percent viewing him favorably in a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll this month.
Nationally, however, Clinton’s favorability rating has fallen since he became more visibly active in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Thirty-nine percent of all Americans viewed him favorably in the mid-January poll, compared to 50 percent in a similar survey in early November.
Over that time, Trump has tried to make an issue out of Bill Clinton’s sexual history and stir unease among some Americans about Bill Clinton returning to the White House. The Clintons have mostly chosen not to respond to his attacks.
Paul Begala, a former political adviser to Bill Clinton and a friend of the couple’s, said the former president’s greatest strength now is as “Hillary’s authenticator, in part because he’s actually had the job that his wife is seeking.”
“Most people, not just Democrats, feel President Clinton was really good at being president,” Begala said. “And all the hand-wringers and bed-wetters who will say, ‘Oh, he’s going to make a mistake’ — give me a break. He’s still the best natural politician there is.”
As an example of Clinton’s skills, Begala pointed to a recent campaign stop in Concord, N.H., where the former president thanked the state’s voters for being good to the Clintons and teaching them about the issues facing America. Then, in an amiable, unhurried tone, with gentle waves of his hands, Clinton reached for a metaphor to describe the hopes and anxieties of voters in presidential election years.
“The American people are like a great composer — the words are always the same, but they are rearranged like notes, and they write a new melody and then they decide who they want to sing it,” Clinton said.
Begala said: “I love that where so many analysts see cacophony he sees a symphony. Classic Clinton: optimistic, unifying.”