ORLANDO — Inside a dark and smoky Daytona Beach bar this week, bartender Trish Mackie commiserated with a customer about the sorry state of the economy and political leadership.
"But I'm still voting for Barack Obama,'' she said. "Just like Bill Clinton said at the convention, it'll take at least eight years to fix the mess Obama inherited."
Doug Tyler, who had just said he couldn't stomach either Obama or Mitt Romney, nodded his head: "Well, having heard Clinton speak — and I never liked the guy when he was president — it does make me think twice about Obama. He did get (Osama) bin Laden, and I do give him some credit for coming into this economy and at least keeping us somewhat stable."
Such is the elevated status of Clinton, who after years of well-documented tension with Obama, now looks like one of the most potent forces in Obama's re-election campaign.
"I'm telling you what works is cooperation. What fails is constant conflict," Clinton told a crowd of 2,000 in Orlando Wednesday night, ridiculing the GOP suggestion that they can shrink the deficit by cutting trillions of dollars in taxes, largely for wealthy Americans.
It's no accident that if you turn on your TV in the Interstate 4 corridor lately you're more likely to see Clinton talking up Obama than any other Obama campaign ad.
Nor is it any accident that after the Democratic National Convention, the Obama campaign promptly dispatched Clinton to campaign in Florida and Ohio.
Clinton has broad appeal, but he connects with working class white voters in a way that polls show Obama does not. Given the former president's record leading the country during a period of strong economic growth and balanced budgets, he also is a potent surrogate among voters who may be skeptical about Obama's record.
"I honestly believe it doesn't matter who caused it or whether the contributing factors all happened under President (George W.) Bush or something I did or something Ronald Reagan did 30 years ago. Regardless, President Obama didn't cause it," Clinton, 66, said of the economic meltdown, speaking at the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando.
"As someone who, beginning when I was governor in 1979, has spent a lifetime trying to create jobs and help people start businesses and expand manufacturing and create opportunity for people to train and educate them to seize those opportunities, it is my opinion that no president, not Barack Obama, not Bill Clinton not anybody who served before us — nobody who ever had this job — could repair that much damage to this economy," he said.
Clinton conspicuously steered clear of any mention of the attacks on American diplomats in Libya and Egypt. But just as he did during his well-received convention speech, he played homespun professor in ridiculing the Republican's vague budget and tax plans and wholeheartedly defending Obama's health care reform law, and its impact on entitlements.
The former president seized on Republican attacks that Obama slashed the popular Medicare Advantage program.
"Now that is a bullet aimed right at Florida, because you have 1.2 million in Medicare Advantage," Clinton said, explaining that the cuts involved reduced payments and profit margins for private Medicare Advantage providers.
"They said nobody will want to offer it," Clinton said of critics. "Last year, after the bill passed? Record number of insurance companies applied to offer Medicare Advantage. Last year after the bill passed? Seventeen percent more people enrolled in Medicare Advantage. And last year after the bill passed the premium price for being there dropped 16 percent."
He continued: "I just want you to remember that if you see all these ads. All these changes, and we've got more companies, more people, and lower prices. So if the president was trying to wreck Medicare Advantage he did a poor job of it."
On his two-day swing through Florida, Clinton also took time to attend fundraisers for South Florida congressional candidates Lois Frankel and Patrick Murphy (Republican-turned-independent former Gov. Charlie Crist joined Clinton there) and for Central Florida Democratic congressional candidates Val Demings and Heather Beaven.
At times, he sounded more like a Central Florida mayor than the last two-term Democratic president. He spoke of the local candidates like longtime friends, and he hailed the more than 100 computer simulation companies that have popped up in Orlando.
"Florida is the future, today. You have lots of young people with great diversity and enormous promise, and too much poverty. You have a ton of old folks, just like all of America is going to have when us baby boomers retire," Clinton said. "Then you've got these folks in the middle, trying to build an entrepreneurial future."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]