DURHAM, N.H. – Is this what it would have been like if Elvis were reduced to playing Reno?
Former President Bill Clinton has been drawing sleepy and sometimes smallish crowds at big venues in the state that revived his presidential campaign in 1992. He entered to polite applause and rows of empty seats at the University of New Hampshire on Friday. Several people filed out midspeech, and the room was largely quiet as he spoke, with few interruptions for laughter or applause. He talked about his administration, his foundation work and somewhat about his wife.
“Hillary’s got good plans,” he kept saying as he worked work through a hoarse-voiced litany of why his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, is a “world-class change agent.” He urged his audience to “caucus” on tomorrow for Mrs. Clinton, before correcting himself (“vote”). He took questions, quickly worked a rope line and left.
Maybe the sluggish day was a blip. It was, in fairness, the day after Mrs. Clinton finished third in the Iowa caucuses, behind Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. The former president was working on 30 minutes’ sleep. He traveled to New Hampshire from Iowa in the wee hours, and the university was on winter break.
But there was a similarly listless aura at the previous stop, in Rochester. And again, on Saturday in Bow, at just the sort of high school gym that the master campaigner used to blow out. Only 175 showed up in Bow — about one-third the capacity of the room — to hear Mr. Clinton hit his bullet points on the subprime lending crisis, $100 barrels of oil and how “10 of Hillary’s fellow senators have endorsed her.”
“The crowd seemed very passive,” Arthur Cunningham of Bow said after the speech. “Maybe they were tired.”
Since Mrs. Clinton’s performance in Iowa last week, one of the more intriguing narratives around her campaign has been the “Bill to the Rescue” conceit.
People with ties to the campaign said Mr. Clinton has been increasingly engaged in strategy, talking regularly to James Carville, one of the chief architects of his 1992 campaign. Carville said that he spoke “periodically” with Mr. Clinton and that they remained close friends.
Publicly, the former president seems determined to amp himself down, to eliminate any hint that he might be the headliner. He speaks fast, in a conversational voice, somewhat ill-suited to the large rooms that the campaign has arranged for him.
“I’m going to talk to you a little bit about Hillary,” Clinton said in Durham, “and then when I’m done, I’m going to saddle back to this Democratic dinner, where I’m going to sit in the audience and clap for her.”
His practiced self-deflation on the stump reflects something of a split within the campaign over how best to use him, campaign advisers say. There is a feeling among one faction that he was overexposed in Iowa, and that his presence became a distraction.
But there is also a belief, advisers say, that Mr. Clinton has a special relationship with New Hampshire, and that with his history in the state and his enduring popularity, he can be particularly effective.
Clinton always had the knack for pumping out the sunshine on dark days. Few were darker than what he faced here, in 1992, during the left-for-dead stage of his first presidential campaign.
Against all odds and scandal, Clinton started attracting big and boisterous crowds. To this day, he waxes nostalgic about an appearance he made that winter in Keene, at which 400 people showed up — 250 more than expected. “I thought, I might actually win this election,” Clinton said during a return to Keene last summer.
Mr. Clinton managed a surprising second-place finish that year in the New Hampshire primary, behind Paul E. Tsongas. He called himself “the Comeback Kid,” the news media ran with it, and the Clinton era began.
Sixteen years later, Clinton is back in New Hampshire, in the service of his wife’s hobbled campaign and extending the era.
“New Hampshire affords him the opportunity to return to his campaign roots,” said Skip Rutherford, a longtime friend of the Clintons who worked on the 1992 campaign and is now the dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas. “It reminds him of home, in that he has the chance to engage in that very personal brand of politics.”
But it is more complicated this time than Clinton being irrepressible, shaking every hand and willing his wife to victory. He is not the candidate this time; instead, he is the statesman-surrogate-spouse, who operates without the crowd-building resources and advance people that a candidate typically has.
“Expectations need to be scaled accordingly,” said Joshua King, a veteran of political stagecraft who served as director of production in the Clinton White House.