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Clinton hails Kerry in surgery comeback
Updated: 2004-10-26 10:38

It was vintage Bill Clinton, a lip-biting, thumb-wagging, center-of-attention performance.

Seven weeks after quadruple bypass heart surgery, looking pale and unusually thin, the former president came back to give John Kerry a sendoff for the final week of the campaign promoting his own presidency as well and bluntly framed the campaign between Kerry and President Bush.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (L) talks to former U.S. President Bill Clinton at a rally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania October 25, 2004. The rally marked former President Clinton's first campaign appearance for Senator Kerry since Clinton's heart surgery. [Reuters]
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (L) talks to former U.S. President Bill Clinton at a rally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania October 25, 2004. The rally marked former President Clinton's first campaign appearance for Senator Kerry since Clinton's heart surgery. [Reuters]
"You've got a clear choice between two strong men with great convictions and philosophies, different policies with very different consequences for this city, this state, our nation and the world," Clinton told thousands of Democrats crammed shoulder-to-shoulder inside three city blocks.

Nobody seemed to notice that he had just called Bush strong, with equal billing to Kerry. Then again, few in the crowd seemed to be there to hear Kerry who, according to polls, is supported by a political base united in its disdain for Bush more than its enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee.

"Who did I come to see?" asked Lisa Jackson, 44, of Upper Darby, Pa, in a tone that suggested the answer was obvious. "Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton. I can see John Kerry any time, but this is Bill Clinton."

Kerry hopes that Clinton can help turn out Democratic voters, especially blacks like Jackson who are lukewarm about their nominee. After the rally, Kerry and Clinton held a conference call with black ministers across the country and had lunch with state politicians and "as many other hanger-oners who could fit in the room," said Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry.

Clinton plans to campaign without Kerry this weekend in the tossup states of Nevada and New Mexico as well as his home state of Arkansas, a GOP-leaning state where polls suggest that Bush's lead has shrunk.

Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky made him a political pariah in Democrat Al Gore's race against Bush four years ago, but now the former president has a higher approval ratings than Bush or Kerry in some polls.

Robert Maris, 40, of Philadelphia peered through binoculars at the stage two blocks away. "I came here to see my man," he said. "Bill Clinton. I hope he brings his best stuff."

There were flashes of Clinton at his best from the moment he took the stage with Kerry, waving to the crowd before acknowledging the applause and his medical recovery with one 12-word opening.

"If this isn't good for my heart," he said, putting his hand to his chest, "I don't know what is."

And so began a speech that ran about 1,400 words, nearly half as long as the one to follow from Kerry.

"From time to time, I have been called the Comeback Kid. In eight days, John Kerry's going to make America the comeback country," he said.

Clinton gave himself the comeback moniker 12 years ago, putting a good face on his second-place finish in New Hampshire's Democratic primary.

In making his case for Kerry, Clinton used a rhetorical tool that dates to his days as Arkansas' governor: statistics. Nobody uses numbers like Clinton. There are 249,000 new cases of poverty in Pennsylvania. Some 333,000 people who lost health insurance. Unemployment is up 26 percent. About 140,000 unemployed workers were kicked off job training and 88,000 cops have been pulled off the streets.

He added it all up into an indictment of Bush and his happy memories of his own days in power. The Comeback Kid had a little more to say about himself.

"In Pennsylvania alone, you've lost 70,000 jobs as compared with the 219,000 you gained by this time when that last fellow was president me," he said.

Clinton ticked off Kerry's policies in a rat-a-tat style that seemed more succinct than anything the candidate has managed. Kerry will repeal Bush's tax cut, invest in education, save the average health insurance policyholder $1,000 and make the world safer.

"On security, where they have claimed to have the edge, President Kerry will give us a larger army, get more help and better management in Iraq, put more emphasis on homeland security ... put more emphasis on getting weapons of mass destruction and more emphasis on al-Qaida," Clinton said.

While Kerry delivered his stump speech, Clinton quietly critiqued him. "That's pretty good," he said to Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., when Kerry said America needs a president who can do more than one thing at a time.

Kerry borrowed some Clinton touches, walking out from behind the podium to roam the stage high above the crowd and cutting the air with a fist, his thumb pointing skyward.

When both speeches were done, Clinton grabbed Kerry by the shoulder and pointed to the crowd on its feet. Then he pointed offstage. You shake hands, he was saying, while I leave.

Indeed, Clinton started to walk past a flurry of hands reaching for his. Then he stopped, touched his heart and reached tentatively into the throng.

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