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‘Comeback Kid’ shifts to elder sage in N.H.

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HANOVER, N.H. — Bill Clinton was hoarse and he had a nosebleed after traveling the snow-bound roads from Keene to Claremont. By the time he got to this college town, he looked ready to sink into a chair next to the Hanover Inn's fireplace.

Recent days had brought news of his wife trailing Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. The senator from Vermont has strong cross-border appeal here, where the Green Mountain state can be reached with a quick expedition over the Ledyard Bridge.

So there Bill Clinton was, at a podium in a Dartmouth College auditorium, a clutch of talking points in a folder before him. He dabbed his nose with a tissue and cleared his throat, the elder-statesman incarnation of the comeback kid who, in an earlier campaign of his own, proclaimed he wasn't leaving the state "till the last dog dies."

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No longer the candidate, and more than 15 years removed from his own presidency, Bill Clinton has now picked up where he left off in 2008, his hair whiter, his voice more strained, but still trying to recapture, for his wife, the magic of the primary that launched his presidency.

"Everything she ever touched, she made better," he told the Wednesday crowd of an estimated 700.

No one had to believe him, of course, he demurred, citing "the love discount."

The crowd lapped it all up — the undiluted Arkansas-ese alongside a professorial outline of her policy achievements ("I'd like to talk to you a little tonight … in kind of a non-argumentative but explanatory way," he opened), a wonky love letter if ever there were one. With great detail, he catalogued his wife's career accomplishments, as a lawyer, US senator, and secretary of state, and a lot of stuff in between — her spearheading of a program that trains parents of at-risk kids in early education methods and her work across the aisle with Republican Tom DeLay to increase the adoptions of children in foster care.

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Bill Clinton mentioned his own accomplishments sparingly — once, maybe twice. He'd been president, he reminded the crowd, some of whom were toddlers when he was in the Oval Office. "The eight years I served were the only period of genuinely shared prosperity that America's had in 50 years," he explained.

It's a delicate dance for the Clintons. He is her surrogate, the man supposed to be selling her presidential bona fides to the American people. But he's also Bill Clinton, which means he brings with him all the history that comes with being Bill Clinton. Yet Hillary Clinton, as recently as this week, touted his record to bolster her own appeal.

"He carried a message of peace and prosperity under his presidency," she said on NBC News' "Today." "And I think a lot of Americans would like to go back to those days."

For much of the campaign, Bill Clinton has played a behind-the-scenes role, speaking at closed-door fund-raisers and providing the candidate, his wife, with feedback and advice.

He made his first solo appearance for his wife's 2016 campaign in New Hampshire earlier this month. His only other major appearance was in late October, as Vice President Joe Biden mulled entering the race. Then he emerged only to introduce his wife at a rally in Iowa and returned to the sidelines.

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His swing through the western flank of New Hampshire on Wednesday came as polls show Sanders pulling ahead of his wife, and as the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, ramped up talk at his rallies of the former president's past marital infidelity.

It was 24 years ago that Bill Clinton, then 46, arrived in this state to try to handshake his way to a win in the first-in-the-nation primary. He was the youngest candidate on the trail, with a Wellesley and Yale Law School-educated wife who would go to the White House with him, making his election "a buy one, get one free deal."

His campaign landscape had parallels to her current challenges. Bill Clinton faced a progressive grass-roots challenger who promised an end to Congress being a "Stop-and-shop for the moneyed special interests" (then-former governor Jerry Brown of California). Among the rival GOP candidates was a staunch conservative who favored a wall between the United States and Mexico (Patrick Buchanan).

He also encountered questions about his infidelity when, less than a month before the New Hampshire primary, a tabloid released a cover story claiming he'd had a relationship with Gennifer Flowers.

He placed second in the primary, defying expectations and boosting him to future wins and the nomination.

This time around, Bill Clinton is a Democratic eminence, a name from history books for many of the collegiate members of the audience who danced to Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" and highlighted Michel Foucault texts as they waited for him to arrive.

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"I don't know a lot about Bill Clinton, just that he's intriguing," said Miles Campbell 19, a student at Brown University who grew up in Hanover.

Polls show Hillary Clinton trailing among millennials, the generation born between 1982 and 2000, who outnumber baby boomers and have been drawn by Sanders' message of income equality and populist approach.

The Vermont senator spoke at another Dartmouth venue Thursday.

For those of other generations, Bill Clinton's visit ignited memories of the decade before 9/11, of the Hubble space telescope, "Forrest Gump,'' and "Friends.''

"The '90s were flooding back," said James Duffy, an architect in nearby Lebanon.

"Newly inspired," Deb Hoffer, a 46-year-old pediatrician, said after his speech.

Hoffer was busy with medical training and paid little attention to politics in the 1990s.

She left Clinton's speech with a stronger inclination toward a vote for his wife.

"This helped," she said.

Even if Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, there is solace for Hillary Clinton in her husband's playbook. In modern presidential history, only one candidate has lost both of the early contests and won the presidency.

Bill Clinton.


Annie Linskey of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@
globe.com
.