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Bill Clinton, 'explainer in chief,' set to make case for Hillary at DNC

President Bill Clinton has a unique role at his party's convention tonight: speaking as both a former president and as the spouse of this year's nominee, Hillary Clinton. He's a skilled orator and will make the case to American voters to elect her, which would put him back in the White House.

Clinton has a unique role speaking as both a former president and as the spouse of a candidate

Hillary Clinton greets her husband, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, on the stage during an election night rally on June 7, 2016, in New York. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

Bill Clinton will stand on stage tonight at the Democratic National Convention not only as a former president, but potentially as the future "first gentleman" of the United States.

He has made speeches at the DNC before, but this will be a first: speaking in support of wife Hillary Clinton, who is on the brink of accepting the Democratic nomination, just as he did in 1992.

Should she win in November, he will move back into the White House with her in a historic role reversal. Clinton's speech at the convention is an opportunity to help get the country used to that idea, said David Kusnet, Clinton's former speech writer, in an interview ahead of this week's convention.

"It's not uncommon for former presidents to address national party conventions and it's not uncommon for the candidate's spouse to address a convention, but this is the first time that they are going to be one and the same person," said Kusnet.

"We've had fathers and sons as presidents, but we've never before had a husband and then a wife as president, and I think just by getting up there and being comfortable with it, I think he can help Americans be comfortable with it," he continued.

Like in 2008, when his wife ran for the nomination against President Barack Obama, Clinton was active on the campaign trail during the primaries this year, accompanying his wife to rallies and holding his own.

Clinton skilled at connecting

He spent time in rural areas in America's Rust Belt, and Kusnet said that's where Clinton, as a member of the older, white male demographic, can be an asset. Politico reported Tuesday morning that Clinton is indeed eager to do more in those areas and to eat into Republican nominee Donald Trump's popularity with those voters.

"If there is anyone who can help people who look like him and had some of the experiences he had growing up to understand and adjust and feel comfortable with a very changing America, it's Bill Clinton," said Kusnet.

Bill Clinton campaigns for wife Hillary Clinton in Oregon in May 2016. He was busy on the campaign trail during the primaries and will continue to campaign until November. (Don Ryan/Associated Press)

As he is likely to demonstrate on Tuesday night, Clinton is a talented orator, though his voice sounds weaker these days. The content of his speeches, which he calls "talks," according to Kusnet, can be powerful and persuasive, regardless of how loudly they are delivered.

The former president has a knack for explaining things in a way that people understand and accept from him. The skill earned him the nickname "explainer in chief."

"He's a tremendous person on the podium. He has this way of connecting individually with members of the audience," Steve Schier, author of Postmodern Presidency: Bill Clinton's Legacy in U.S. Politics, said in an interview Monday.

That strength is viewed as a weakness for Hillary. She struggles to come across as genuine and authentic, especially when addressing larger audiences.

Clinton an asset and a risk

As much as having Clinton stumping for his wife can help, it's simultaneously a risk. He is known to improvise and campaign events don't always go smoothly, such as when he was confronted by a Black Lives Matter supporter in May who criticized his controversial crime bill from the 1990s. Clinton didn't back down and forcefully defended his legislation, which then put his spouse in an awkward position of doing damage control.

He also caused controversy by meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on her plane, an encounter they called a social visit, while the FBI was still investigating the private email server his wife used in their home while she was secretary of state under Barack Obama.

"The problem for him is to put a muzzle on it because he is verbose," said Schier, a professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. "He is engaging, and he is warm and he loves to deploy those assets. And he can sometimes do that indiscriminately."

Jenny Logan buys a smoothie for Bill Clinton in Las Cruces in New Mexico in June 2016 after a campaign event. (Jett Loe/The Las Cruces Sun-News)

Clinton has been a feature not only on his wife's campaign, but on Trump's as well. The Republican nominee has blasted Clinton over sex scandals from when he was in the White House and blamed Hillary for being an "enabler" of his infidelities.

Trump has also tied his rival to her husband's signing of NAFTA, a trade deal the New York businessman calls disastrous and one he has promised to renegotiate with Canada and Mexico.

Clinton's record hangs over his wife as she attempts to win the same job he once had. Delegates at the convention are wary of that, and said that when Clinton speaks on Tuesday, he needs to be clear about what lies ahead.

"I think he needs to talk about what his role will be and that he is not the next president," said Trevor Elkins, a Bernie Sanders delegate from Ohio. "This is not a third term for Bill Clinton; this is a first term for Hillary Clinton."

A 'controversial' legacy

The Clintons have indicated that the former president is interested in economic issues. If she wins the White House, she will have to decide what role to give him in it, if any. The family will also have to decide how to manage The Clinton Foundation, a non-profit that works on global health and other issues. It has come under fire for accepting donations from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

Elkins said if Clinton were to become "first gentleman" of the United States, it would be a good thing for the country given his experience, and he's "excited" about the idea.

But, he added, Clinton would have to realize he's not in the driver's seat anymore. "I hope that he's bright enough, he's a very intelligent man, to step back and step out of the limelight when it's appropriate," he said.

Mike Foley, another Ohio delegate, said Democrats have mixed feelings about Clinton. "He's controversial, no doubt about it," he said, adding that Clinton is a smart guy that says dumb things every once in a while.

Some appreciate the economic growth he presided over, while others, particularly Sanders supporters, feel he was too conservative.

"I've never liked him. I mean, I voted for him way back then but he was always too conservative and he doesn't have good moral character," said Carol Cizauskas, a delegate from Nevada. "I don't like Bill Clinton, not at all."

Clinton applauds as current President Barack Obama's wife, Michelle Obama, speaks during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

As delegates were leaving the Wells Fargo Center Monday night after a standout speech from the president's wife, Michelle Obama, some were talking about spotting Clinton in the crowd.

"Do you remember his speech in 2008? It was SO long!" one young man said to another. It was a good one, though, they agreed. Clinton that year gave a solid endorsement to Barack Obama despite the fierce competition between Obama and Hillary Clinton during the primaries.

Eight years later, Bill Clinton will once again be on stage, this time with his wife as the nominee and making the case to American voters to support her.

Kusnet, who was Clinton's speech writer for three years, said he doesn't expect his former boss to attack Trump too harshly.

"If you compare him to heavyweight boxers, he's Muhammad Ali. He's not someone who comes out slugging. He's someone with some artistry and grace. I think he'll find a way to take on Donald Trump, but will do it with a light touch," said Kusnet.


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