The Clintons Double-Team Obama

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(l. to r.): Matt Campbell / EPA; Matt Campbell / EPA; Win McNamee / Getty

New York Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton (left); Illinois Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama; former U.S. President Bill Clinton

At one point in Monday evening's contentious Democratic debate, Barack Obama complained, "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes" — Hillary or Bill Clinton. The Illinois Senator may have simply been trying to make a rhetorical point about the former President's role in recent weeks as his wife's attack dog, but his criticism soon seemed much more valid. Later that night Hillary Clinton announced plans to spend the next few days campaigning in Super Tuesday delegate-rich states such as California and Arizona, leaving South Carolina — which holds its Democratic primary Saturday — in her husband's hands.

As the race between Clinton and Obama has tightened and become increasingly heated, Bill Clinton has spent more and more time on the trail for his wife — often to mixed reviews. But their South Carolina strategy carries a one-two punch. By not actively campaigning here for most of this week, Clinton is essentially ceding the state to Obama, who, on the strength of the black vote, is ahead here by 10.5 percentage points, according to an average of South Carolina polls by Real Clear Politics. Not making a real effort here allows her to discount an Obama win as uncontested, and hence less meaningful. But by leaving the state to her husband, who won two presidential contests here, she makes it impossible for Obama to relax or focus his energies elsewhere. This week in South Carolina Obama is essentially running against the former President, and he knows it. "I think the South Carolina voters will have to make an assessment in terms of how seriously she's taking the state," Obama told CBN's David Brody yesterday. "She said [in the debate] last night that Bill Clinton wasn't the one running for President, but this is the next primary and he's the one who's staying behind."

Though he swears he's "rusty," Bill Clinton was in full campaign form Tuesday. Hours behind schedule, he stopped to press the flesh with everyone in sight. "I love talking to people, doing all these town hall meetings," Clinton told reporters at Lizzard's Thicket, a breakfast joint in Columbia. He also took the opportunity to hit at his wife's opponent when he was asked: "Is Obama running against you, or Hillary Clinton, or both of you?"

"Oh, I don't know, I thought he was running against me for a while there in Nevada when he said that Republicans had most of the new ideas and you had to challenge the conventional wisdom of the '90s," Clinton said with a mellow smile, leaning back before the cameras. "I thought we challenged the conventional wisdom of the '90s."

That comment prompted an angry conference call from the Obama campaign, which announced that it was forming a South Carolina Truth Squad to respond to all of the Clintons' accusations. One that particularly has upset Obama is Bill Clinton's innuendo in Nevada, which his wife mentioned during the debate and he himself repeated yesterday, that Obama somehow supports the Republican Party's platform. The flap grew out of this Obama remark last week: "I think it's fair to say the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom."

Obama spent the day on the defensive, growing visibly frustrated at times with the Clintons. "My point was that Democrats have got to reach out to disaffected Independents and Republicans and form a working majority to move our agenda forward," Obama told supporters in Lexington yesterday. "Well, this suddenly became a situation where I was claiming that the Republicans had all the good ideas since 1980, according to the Clintons."

Bill Clinton said he hoped the rhetoric will "mellow out," though he understands that "we're going to have a few arguments — this is a contact sport. Sometimes when you have a family feud it's harder than when you have a feud with someone in a different clan because you have to dig deeper to find where the difference is."

Obama isn't the only one who has taken issue with the former President's suddenly vocal role on the trail. Some past and present Democratic leaders, including former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, have complained that it is inappropriate for the former President to be playing such a nakedly partisan role in the nomination race. (Daschle, it must be noted, is backing Obama.) Some Democrats were particularly taken aback after Clinton called Obama's candidacy a "fairy tale" in New Hampshire, though Clinton later recanted, saying he was referring to Obama's position on the war in Iraq. South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, went so far as to call on Clinton "to chill a little bit."

"I can understand him wanting to defend his wife's honor and his own record, and that is to be expected. But you can't do that in a way that won't engender the kind of feelings that seem to be bubbling up as a result of this," Clyburn, who is not endorsing a candidate, told CNN. Many political observers have stressed that the former President's outsized presence threatens to overshadow his wife, and that his sometime angry, petulant exchanges with the media remind voters of what they didn't always like about the Clinton years.

Still, Hillary Clinton's triumph in Nevada, where Bill Clinton was particularly vocal, seemed to show that, in the final equation, her husband does more good than harm. And whether it's Bill or Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail doesn't seem to make much difference to South Carolina voters, who seemed as much, if not more, excited to see the former President. Back at Lizzard's Thicket, Caitlin Schmidt was treated to the full force of Bill Clinton's charm. The 36-year-old homemaker, who had been deciding between Obama and Clinton, was swayed. "This did it for me, I think," she said. "Though I did tell him: you catch more flies with honey."