Bill Clinton laid his political hands on Barack Obama Wednesday night in front of more than 30,000 adoring supporters, just six days before Americans pick a new President.
Introduced as "the next President and the former President," the two bounded onto the stage together on a jarringly chilly Florida evening, sharing wide grins and the occasional backslap. They appeared in the state that has been a symbol of the nation's divisive politics since the 2000 recount and is now 2008's biggest up-for-grabs political prize.
Since Clinton left office, the Democrats have lost two straight presidential elections by close margins, in both cases with candidates much more allied politically and personally to Clinton than Obama has been. But Wednesday night, Clinton spoke about his party's nominee with warmth and apparent conviction.
Clinton praised Obama's philosophy, policies, decision-making and capacity to execute his plans in the White House, saying crisply, "This man should be our President."
Obama, who at times during his campaign has spoken critically of Clinton's two terms in office, returned the favor. He called Clinton passionate and smart, "a great President, a great statesman, a great supporter."
"Nobody makes the case for change that works for the middle class like Bill Clinton," Obama said, contrasting the 1990s with the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency.
As Obama moved on to his stump speech, disparaging Bush and John McCain and mocking the latter's suggestion that Obama has socialist tendencies, Clinton sat nearby, gazing, nodding and showing off his trademark exaggerated belly laugh on a few occasions.
Clinton and Obama have spoken by telephone several times since Obama sewed up the Democratic nomination. They also had one previous meeting it was cordial in Clinton's Harlem office. But this was the first joint public appearance for two politicians who are routinely called the greatest of their generation.
Despite their best efforts, the two men betrayed some awkwardness onstage, reflecting stylistic and age differences, the still raw wounds of the nomination battle and perhaps some professional jealousy.
It is regularly observed by political pros that Obama's background as an African American from humble origins would have made him just the kind of potential presidential successor Clinton would love to champion if the young Illinois Senator hadn't stood in the way of Clinton's wife.
To be sure, there are still lingering tensions between the camps. Many of the former President's closest supporters remain stunned that Hillary Clinton lost her nomination battle against Obama and resentful of what they believe were efforts to promote the notion that Bill was playing racial politics. Obama's failure to choose or even truly consider Hillary as his running mate also rankled.
There still may be doubt within their circle of supporters that Obama is fully ready to run the country, but the Clintons themselves are now convinced Obama will win the job. That is quite a change for the Clintons, who long believed, even after Hillary conceded, that Obama's inexperience and trouble winning over working-class white voters would make him an easy mark for McCain.
Just before midnight, Obama concluded his remarks, and the two men hugged, shook hands, waved with their arms around each other and worked the crowd in tandem. It is expected to be their first and last appearance together before Election Day. Perhaps this brief union between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is something of a shotgun political marriage, but tonight, at least, they effectively mimed bliss.