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October 22, 2014

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Campaign’s ‘Big Dawg’

Ex-president opens doors, goes on attack

Image

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ruben Padron photographs himself with former President Clinton at Caesars Palace, one of the many Strip properties Clinton visited.

Caucus confusion

As the first western state to hold a caucus in the 2008 presidential election, all eyes were on Nevada. A record turnout of more than 115,000 attendees delivered on Democratic leader Harry Reid's promise that the Silver State would have significant influence in the race. However, the process — while progressive — was not without its problems. Long lines, registration woes, and general confusion plagued several Las Vegas caucus sites.

The Culinary and The Caucus

Several hundred filed into the Paris Hotel and Casino’s ballroom Saturday morning. Unlike the tourists who venture to this Las Vegas resort, these people were not here for fun or gambling. Nope, these were workers, Nevada’s most prized Culinary Union workers, ready to raise their voices or at least candidate — to the top.

But that’s where things get tricky. Less than two weeks ago the Culinary gave its powerful endorsement to Barack Obama. But not everyone in the union backed that decision as many favored Hillary Clinton, who had built great support in the Silver State.

Fast forward to last week: A teacher’s union lawsuit threatened to stop Strip casino caucuses; accusations of intimidation by the Culinary Union; and plenty of verbal barbs let loose by both candidates. It sure seemed like Paris was the perfect place for a political time bomb.

While no fists flew during the caucus, there was plenty of cheering and jeering on both sides. Add in just a little Vegas flesh and the political process in Paris was anything but normal.

Bill & Hillary in Vegas

Hillary Clinton poses for a photo with her Nevada staff after a news conference in a parking lot on her way out of town after her Nevada Democratic caucus win Saturday. Launch slideshow »

Caucus Results by County

See how Hillary won the Silver State

Ralston's Flash

Sun Caucus Interactives

When the former president of the United States calls, you answer the phone, and you don’t say no to his request.

That’s what MGM Mirage Senior Vice President Alan Feldman was confronted with last week, as the Clinton campaign went all out to win over Strip hotel workers.

Former President Clinton relentlessly sought more and more back-of-the-house access to workers as part of the last-minute blitz that secured victory for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in Saturday’s Democratic caucus.

It drew into sharp relief the benefit of having a beloved — among Democrats anyway — former president campaigning as a spouse. Bill Clinton’s assistance to the campaign stands in contrast to his role in the Iowa contest, where he was seen as not helping the candidate much.

His new role after Iowa, the Rottweiler muscling his way into the back of the MGM Grand when he’s not attacking Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, offers his favorite candidate a perfect foil and allows her to soften her image, political observers say.

Moreover, as a former president, “He’ll get in any door” and has instant credibility, especially among Democrats, said Mark Montini, a leading Republican consultant who said many in his party fear the Clintons because of their ability to win races and political wars after being left for dead.

The Clintons’ strategy of using the former president in such an explicitly political role isn’t without risk, however, because Americans may rear back from the notion of a former president as political operative and hatchet man in chief.

Feldman’s encounter with high-level presidential politics began Thursday night with a call from an aide to Bill Clinton, who asked Feldman whether the former president and Chelsea Clinton could tour back-of-the-house areas of the Bellagio.

“To the extent that there was going to be handshaking and no campaigning, we made the properties equally available to both campaigns,” Feldman said. Candidates and candidates’ spouses talking to workers the day before the caucus would seem to be campaigning, but Feldman was no doubt in a tough spot.

The visit incensed D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union. Most if not all of the workers the candidates and family members would be visiting are Culinary members.

Taylor quickly placed a call to MGM Mirage. Feldman said the company was not playing favorites and extended the same access to Obama, whom the Culinary was supporting. Feldman didn’t hear back from the Culinary so he reached out directly to Obama’s organization, which arranged caucus-day visits for the candidate to the Bellagio and the Mirage.

Clinton toured the Bellagio on Friday afternoon. But then the campaign made another push. It wanted to visit more properties — as many as the company would allow.

Feldman said he would first have to confer with the Obama camp. He called the Obama campaign again, he said, and extended the offer of touring more properties. The campaign declined, he said.

Obama’s schedule was already packed with events and interviews, which seemed to highlight a significant weakness of his campaign: There’s only one of him. His spouse isn’t a former president.

Feldman called the Clinton campaign to set Saturday morning visits for Bill Clinton at the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay.

Clinton went to the MGM Grand, but the campaign then made a last-minute change, sending Hillary Clinton to Mandalay Bay, Feldman said. That freed Bill Clinton, and he wasn’t finished.

Feldman said he received an anxious phone call from a manager at the Mirage about an unplanned visit by the former president. “They said he was going to go through the back of house on his way to the caucus site,” Feldman said. That route would allow the president to see many more Culinary workers.

“We said no,” Feldman said. The back of the house wasn’t a direct route.

Clinton went straight to the caucus site.

He also found time Saturday morning to hit the Rio, which is not an MGM Mirage property. That was four casinos in the hours before the caucus.

The vibe as Clinton toured on Saturday morning was ecstatic, Feldman said. “People were vibrating in the presence of greatness.” (Feldman was quick to add that workers were equally as excited to see Obama.)

How many potential caucusgoers did Clinton reach in those visits? Hard to say, but surely the number could reach four digits.

In a post-caucus interview Saturday, Taylor was quick to congratulate Hillary Clinton. He also noted that Bill Clinton’s influence was “pretty formidable.”

Clinton didn’t just visit workers. He also referred to thinly sourced media reports about intimidation tactics he said were being used by Culinary members, even claiming he had witnessed it. Asked by NBC’s Tim Russert to substantiate the claim, the campaign hadn’t responded as of this week’s taping of “Meet the Press.”

Still, Clinton’s attack on the union, which followed comments attacking the idea of the special Strip caucus sites, spotlighted his other new role. Called the “Big Dawg” by some, he’s become a Rottweiler, hitting Obama at every turn, often using a Karl Rove tactic by turning an Obama strength — his long-standing opposition to the war — into a weakness, questioning his anti-war bona fides.

The Obama campaign is clearly concerned. Obama reacted Sunday in an ABC News interview to air today:

“You know the former president, who I think all of us have a lot of regard for, has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling.

“He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts — whether it’s about my record of opposition to the war in Iraq or our approach to organizing in Las Vegas. This has become a habit, and one of the things that we’re going to have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he’s making statements that are not factually accurate,” Obama said.

Montini, the Republican political consultant, has been on the other side, and he knows the drill: “This is classic Clinton, with a new face on it. The first rule of thumb (with the Clintons) has always been, when in trouble, attack brutally hard. Whether it’s a personal, policy or political crisis, that’s what they do,” he said.

And after Iowa, they faced a crisis.

They turned to Bill Clinton, who began hammering Obama.

Montini noted that a candidate always likes to have a surrogate do the attacking, though not usually a family member. The campaign’s decision to reach for the former president, and his willingness to threaten his standing as a world statesman by getting down in the mud of electoral politics again, shows the depth of their concern, Montini said.

Some in the party are now voicing their concerns about Clinton’s attacks directly to the former president, according to a Newsweek report, which says Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Edward Kennedy have called Clinton and told him to stop it.

Not likely, said Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland political scientist and expert in Democratic politics.

Clinton is fighting for his legacy, Schaller said. If Hillary Clinton is elected, the Clintons will be presidents 42 and 44, representing the key political movement of their generation.

If Obama is elected, it will be because he created a new coalition. Historians would then likely view Bill Clinton as a brief progressive interlude, a parenthetical statement in the bigger story of Republican ascendance prior to Obama.

Schaller also recalled an anecdote from a book by Stanley Greenberg, former chief pollster to Clinton. According to Greenberg, during the 1992 campaign, Clinton and his strategists gamed out how they would run against Clinton. The poll-tested result was to cast him as an inexperienced rube, not ready to lead.

Sound familiar?

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