SAN ANTONIO, Texas — It would be the cruelest irony of the presidential campaign: Bill Clinton's feverish work to get his wife elected president may be ruining her chances.
Texans on Tuesday stand to decide whether Hillary Rodham Clinton's struggling campaign is resurrected or a lost cause, and it's remarkable how many view the most successful Democrat in half a century as more damaging to his wife's presidential campaign than helpful.
"If he had stayed more behind the scenes it would have been helpful to Hillary's campaign. When he came out hammering, I think that really hurt her,'' said Thomas Hanson, a 44-year-old insurance representative in San Antonio.
Hanson is an Obama supporter, but his sentiments were echoed over and over by Texans backing Clinton and Obama alike, by Republicans, by those who never liked him much and by those who still adore him.
To be sure, Bill Clinton remains a huge draw among the Democratic faithful and there are plenty of people who say his star-power would be valuable to any campaign. But as often as not, voters in Texas weren't sure Bill's presence was a net gain for Hillary.
"We want Hillary! We want Hillary!" came the chants from nearly 1,000 people waiting outside Austin Community College last week for an early voting rally featuring her husband.
Finally, Bill Clinton's motorcade arrived and nearly a thousand giant smiles broke out as the ex-president stepped from his black SUV in a dark suit, snow white hair, and bright yellow tie.
"I love Bill Clinton. I had to come see him,'' said a chuckling Nathan Williams, 31, a consultant and former congressional aide who has spent a decade immersed in Democratic politics.
"But he really messed up in this campaign. I used to think the biggest mistake Al Gore made in 2000 was not having Bill Clinton campaign for him more, but now I'm thinking Al Gore may have been the smartest person in the world keeping Bill Clinton quiet."
Campaign officials always knew the popular ex-president could upstage his less charismatic wife, but he frequently has stolen the limelight in a negative, rather than positive, way.
The ex-president caused an uproar when he dismissed Obama's victory in South Carolina as no different than Jesse Jackson winning the heavily African-American state in the 1980s. In New Hampshire, Clinton angrily called Obama's assertion that he long opposed the Iraq war a "fairy tale," while in Iowa Clinton generated a major distraction from Hillary Clinton by dubiously claiming that he had opposed the war from the start.
"I like Bill Clinton and I never thought he'd be a liability for her, but I really think he has,'' said April Smith, a 42-year-old lawyer in San Antonio supporting Obama. "He's been, I think, overzealous and negative, and the kind of campaigning people are sick of. As much as people may like them, we don't need a second Clinton presidency."
Hillary Clinton has lost 11 straight primaries and caucuses, and trails Illinois Sen. Obama in delegates to the point that she would need overwhelmingly wins in Ohio and Texas Tuesday to have a shot at catching up. Even solid wins in both those big states Tuesday (Rhode Island and Vermont also are voting) could give her an important boost to keep fighting on.
Polls show her leading in Ohio and neck-and-neck in Texas, which has an unusual system in which voters can vote first in a primary, then in a caucus. Campaign staffers don't go so far as to say Sen. Clinton's campaign is dead if she loses Texas, but her husband did.
"If she wins Texas and Ohio, I think she'll be the nominee,'' President Clinton told supporters in Beaumont, Texas, recently. "If you don't deliver for her, I don't think she can be. It's all on you."
Nobody dismisses Clinton's strength in Texas, where voters have embraced such strong women as former Democratic Gov. Ann Richards and Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Clinton has a legion of Democratic politicos backing her and employing their own political machines to help her win Texas.
Plus, Clinton's ties to the Lone Star state go back to 1972 when the then-Yale law student organized voters for George McGovern around San Antonio and South Texas. Hispanics make up about 20 percent of registered voters in Texas and have long been a demographic stronghold for both Clintons.
"For the older (Hispanic) electorate, the ones who show up at the polls, there's a history with the Clintons,'' said Frank Guerra, a Republican who has helped Jeb Bush and George W. Bush court Hispanic voters. "But we might see a unique set of circumstances converge in this race. The big question is who shows up — is it the old guard or the younger voters?"
That's because Obama is drawing strong support among all younger voters, and notably younger Hispanics. Nearly three quarters of Hispanic voters are under age 40, and the generation gap between Obama and Clinton could be decisive in Texas.
Inside a dilapidated cinder block building outside of San Antonio sprinkled with "Viva Hillary" and "Don't Mess with Hillary" signs, about 30 people craned their necks to hear instructions about how Texas' caucus would work. Almost all were mature women.
"The problem is that a lot of younger voters don't remember Bill Clinton as president and how well he did,'' lamented J.D. Pedraza, who at 38 was one the youngest people in the training session. "They don't have the connection with the Clintons."
Texas uses a strange system some call a "prima-caucus," otherwise known as the "Texas Two-Step." The open primary allows voters of any party to vote in the Democratic primary, which will divvy up 126 delegates based on how the candidates do in the state's state Senate districts.
The formula gives more delegates to districts where Democrats have turned out in big numbers in prior elections. That could help Obama because heavily African American districts in places such as Dallas and Houston have had stronger election turnouts than heavily Hispanic districts where Clinton could be strong.
But that primary is only step one. Fifteen minutes after the polls close at 7 p.m., 8,000 precinct conventions or caucuses will be held across Texas to allocate an additional 67 delegates. Voters who have cast ballots in the primary are allowed to participate in the caucuses.
Texas Democrats haven't had a competitive presidential primary in 20 years, and party leaders are fretting the confusing caucuses could break down into chaos and lawsuits.
Clinton allies in Texas worry she could win the popular vote in the primary and then fall short overall because of the Obama campaign's success with delegates, especially caucuses. Getting people to vote at all is tough enough, but twice is even harder.
Bill Clinton urged people not to view it as a burden: "You can be the only people in the United States who can vote twice in the same election without breaking the law," he said in Austin. "That's pretty cool I think."
The choice, said the former president, is between his wife, a proven change agent, and Obama, who only appears to be the embodiment of change because he's so new to the scene.
Clinton describes Obama's argument as, "Vote for me because I have not been there very long. Vote for me because I was not involved in the heroic struggles with the ultra right wing of the Republican Party."
Across town, longtime Bill Clinton admirer Larry Jackson, 60, paused to consider the ex-president's impact on the race.
"What's made me mad is him acting as if we owe him something,'' said Jackson. "His wife has been a much better advocate for herself than he has been for her."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8241.