INDIANOLA, Iowa — Former President Bill Clinton on Saturday took a big step away from the status he held during the last presidential contest, as a near-pariah among Democratic contenders, and toward becoming a senior and much sought-after party statesman, delivering a gently worded but powerful speech criticizing nearly every major policy of the Bush administration.
Making a rare appearance alongside Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton clearly stole the spotlight before a crowd of 5,000 rain-soaked Democratic voters — and, quite unlike the last time around, had his name and accomplishments invoked by nearly every contender on the stage at the Sen. Tom Harkin Steak Fry.
Looking fit and speaking with unusual eloquence even for a talented orator, Clinton followed short remarks by seven of the nine Democratic contenders with a 20-minute speech that lamented the decisions of the Bush White House on everything from the Patriot Act to environmental policy to tax cuts. Clinton continues his higher-profile stumping today on behalf of Democrats in California, where he will campaign on behalf of Gov. Gray Davis as he fights a recall.
In Iowa, Clinton carefully tested the unwritten rule against former presidents criticizing the current office-holder.
"In a world where you can't kill or jail all your enemies, you've got to make more friends and fewer terrorists," Clinton said in reference to President Bush's tendency to discount longtime allies and such organizations as the United Nations in making foreign policy decisions.
Following the sex scandals and impeachment trial of his tenure in the White House, even his vice president, Al Gore, kept Clinton at arm's length during the 2000 campaign.
In the first months of the current campaign, candidates still did not go out of their way to compare themselves with Clinton.
In the past several weeks, however, he has been increasingly viewed again as a serious power in the party, as well as a man who knew how to win. And Democratic hopefuls have taken to touting his successes as president, especially on domestic issues, seemingly having decided they outweigh his moral failings, especially as they stump in a time of job losses and a growing budget deficit. Wearing a denim shirt, Clinton spoke against a hay-bale backdrop at Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's 26th annual Harkin Steak Fry - held in a muddy field outside this town 20 miles south of Des Moines.
Instead of uniting the country and the world following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Clinton said, Bush has governed through "ideology, enemy and attacks.
"The last election was tight as a tick," he said. "That election was not a mandate for radical change, but that was what we got."
He chastised Bush for softening environmental protections, weakening the influence of labor unions, and repeatedly for cutting taxes for the wealthy, including himself.
"They gave me a tax cut and kicked kids out of after-school programs," he said. He said soldiers in Iraq, the poor and the middle class are all answering Bush's call for sacrifice during war and difficult economic times, but the rich are not.
The tax cuts Bush pushed were a prime target.
"What's the sacrifice that's being asked of people who make more than $1 million a year?"' Clinton asked. "It's the energy they have to expend opening the envelopes containing their tax cuts.
"Don't tell me I'm a class warrior," he added. "I'm all for wealth and business. I just think we should do it together."
As hundreds of people raised red placards that read "Welcome Back Bill" on one side and "We Miss You" on the other, Clinton declared the field of Democratic candidates the best the party had put forth in years. The candidates returned the praise.
Sen. Bob Graham of Florida compared the "diving presidency of George Bush to the uniting presidency of Bill Clinton." Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina criticized fellow Democrats for "walking away from Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who led the greatest period of economic prosperity in our nation's history."
At events earlier in the day, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry praised Clinton and invited him to support their respective candidacies. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Illinois Sen. Carol Mosley Braun lauded Clinton, as did Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, who did not speak but mingled with the crowd.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the first Democratic Senator to publicly decry Clinton's behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, was not at Saturday's event but has taken to presenting himself as the proper heir to Clinton's centrist presidency.
The candidates' new attitude toward Clinton came as a welcome turn to many at the steak fry.
"I think he's finally getting his due," said Tom Cassady, 53, who works in the plumbing supply business. "He kept the economy in shape for eight years. All those other things are fading like they should."
"I think he's a lot less polarizing as a statesman than as a president," said 31-year-old retail marketer Luke Magerko.
The host of the wet, chilly but cheerful hours-long gathering, Harkin, recalled the first steak fry Clinton attended--it was in 1992, the year he was first elected president.
And, Harkin added with a grin: "He just drives those right-wingers nuts, and that's another reason why we love Bill Clinton."