SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine - Bill Clinton was still shaking hands in an overheated gym at a community college in this small coastal town at 10 p.m. on a recent, damp Sunday night. He had just wowed a crowd of 1,500 that had waited hours in a cold drizzle to see him headline a rally for Libby Mitchell, the Democratic candidate for governor in a tight five-person race.
It was his third political rally for his third candidate in his third state that day - and his 60th campaign event so far in a season that has his party on edge.
As the midterm elections approach and Democratic candidates fight to maintain their majorities in Congress and in state capitals, the man who made "it's the economy, stupid" his mantra when he ran for the presidency in 1992 has morphed into a superstar on the campaign trail.
No wonder candidates are clamoring: A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that Clinton is the most popular politician in the country, with 55% of those polled having a positive view of him.
Never mind his disgraceful behavior in office, Clinton today stands as a vivid reminder of better times for voters who fondly remember an era of peace and prosperity when he held the Oval Office. The country wasn't at war, the economy was booming and the deficit was in check.
Amid layoffs, foreclosures and worries about the future, Clinton today offers a reassuring voice.
"He made this country great," said Jennifer Darna, 33, a bookkeeper from Hollis, Maine. "He inspires a lot of people."
Polls show the same cannot be said for President Obama these days. According to Gallup, Obama's approval rating has hovered in the mid-40s for the past year.
That's a big fall from Election Day 2008, when Obama was swept into power on a promise of change. He and the Democrats who run Congress and hold 26 governor seats are now feeling the effects of having to preside over a stagnant economy that has voters angry and frustrated.
"I voted for Obama, but I question him every day," said Darna, who complained that the president should have focused on creating jobs before tackling big, divisive issues such as health care. "He's trying to get too much done at one time. It's costing us too much, and there's too much turmoil and bickering."
As Republicans try to capitalize on that sentiment, Obama is hitting the campaign trail, too, urging patience. His message to voters is similar to Clinton's: Republicans had eight years to dig the economic hole the country is in, so give the Democrats at least two more years to turn the economy around.
Obama can still draw crowds and bring in campaign cash, but in many places, his Democratic predecessor is as big - or bigger - a draw.
In Maine, "two years ago, you couldn't go down the street without meeting people who were so enthusiastic about Obama," says Bowdoin College government professor Christian Potholm. "Now, that's all gone."
Working with White House
Taking direction from the White House and the Democratic National Committee and sifting through scores of requests for his time, Clinton already has made campaign stops from Florida to Minnesota. With less than a month before Election Day, he'll headline rallies from California to Maryland and points in between.
"It would be crazy not to have ... a very popular former president out campaigning," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said over the summer.
Clinton declined to be interviewed for this article.
That Clinton is working with the White House is a remarkable turnaround from the sometimes-bitter Democratic primaries two years ago, when Clinton angered the Obama team with sharp attacks as he campaigned for his wife, then Obama's top rival for the presidential nomination.
Now, Hillary Rodham Clinton is part of Obama's inner circle as his secretary of State, and her husband periodically lunches with the president.
Clinton spends the bulk of his time engaged in philanthropic efforts, such as raising money for earthquake victims in Haiti, and giving speeches. His spokesman, Matt McKenna, says the former president spends about 10% of his time campaigning.
Despite heart bypass surgery in 2004, he is still frenetic enough at the age of 64 that even spending a fraction of his time on the election has allowed him to campaign for 38 candidates so far:
Among the places he's already been:
• Connecticut, to stump for Senate hopeful Richard Blumenthal, the state's attorney general. A Yale classmate of Clinton's, Blumenthal is in a race considered a tossup by the non-partisan Cook Political Report against Republican Linda McMahon, a former World Wrestling Entertainment executive. They are vying for the seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd.
• Arkansas, to campaign for Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a moderate who survived a Democratic primary and is now in an uphill battle, according to the Cook report, against Republican Rep. John Boozman to retain her seat.
• Pennsylvania, to promote Senate candidate Joe Sestak, now a member of the House. Sestak's race against Republican Pat Toomey is also a tossup, according to the Cook ratings. Sestak ousted five-term Sen. Arlen Specter in a Democratic primary after Specter bolted the GOP to avoid a primary against the more conservative Toomey, a former House member.
• Florida, to campaign for Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is in a three-way race for the Senate against Republican Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite, and Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent who also fled his party when it looked like he would lose in a primary.
Clinton may have been the only president embroiled in a sex scandal and impeached for lying about it, but bad feelings about that ugly episode appear to have washed away.
"President Clinton represents good economic times in this country," Meek says.
Even Obama has cited Clinton's record in making the case for Democrats.
In a recent discussion about the economy with voters in Fairfax, Va., Obama referred to the 1990s economy. "I just want to remind everybody," he said, "at the time we had 22 million jobs created, much faster income and wage growth, the economy was humming pretty good."
The question is: Can Clinton actually win votes for desperate Democrats?
Republicans say no way - even though they acknowledge his skill on the stump. "I don't think Bill Clinton adds a single vote," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz.
Luntz adds that Clinton will "put a few dollars in campaign coffers (at fundraisers) and he'll make the loyalists feel good."
Wooing a broader electorate
Democrats, however, say Clinton can win over portions of the broader electorate - voters who consider themselves independents and have mixed feelings about candidates from all the parties.
Libby Mitchell says she knows she's facing an "enthusiasm gap" among voters this year - as her leading opponent, Republican Paul LePage, has surged thanks in part to Tea Party voters energized at the notion of electing new conservative leaders.
Mitchell says Clinton's "message of hope and optimism" should boost turnout and enthusiasm for her campaign.
Diane and Dan Schnaider of Portland showed up at her recent campaign rally undecided about the race, but thrilled with the chance to see the former president.
"I wouldn't have come here just to see Libby," said Dan, 56, a delivery truck driver. "I would have just seen her on TV or something."
Clinton worked hard to reel in people like the Schnaiders. He got the crowd's attention riffing about the small-government Tea Partiers and some of the headline-grabbing candidates running as Republicans this year, including the woman he calls "the witchcraft lady." That's a reference to Christine O'Donnell, the GOP nominee for Senate in Delaware, who has admitted that she "dabbled" in witchcraft when she was young.
"So far they've gathered everybody up for this Tea Party but the Mad Hatter," he said.
The crowd roared.
Then, Clinton got down to business. Over the next half hour, he crystallized the nation's economic problems and offered his argument for giving Democrats more time to repair the damage he blamed on Republicans.
In the meantime, Clinton told disaffected voters not to let the election become a referendum on their anger. "I know that every time you make a decision when you're mad, 80% of the time you're going to make a mistake," he told the crowd. "Let that anger clarify, not cloud, your judgment."
Contributing: Susan Page
By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY