In his first campaign appearance of 2014, Bill Clinton focused on the past to make a pitch for Alison Lundergan Grimes as the future for Kentucky.
Speaking to a sold-out Louisville fundraiser on Tuesday for the Senate candidate, both Democrats drew parallels to Clinton's time in office during the 1990s — a polarized political culture that a struggling economy helped stimulate.
While Clinton toppled an incumbent GOP president, Grimes is hoping to defeat Sen. Mitch McConnell, the powerful Senate Republican leader, by painting herself as the centrist Democrat's heir apparent in a similar political climate.
"The country, which you will recall, had taken some serious blows because of a recession. Sound familiar? The country was ready for a change. The country was ready for a new, fresh Southern face, versus the old Washington been-there-too-long part of the problem and institution — sound familiar?" said Grimes.
She later pledged, in a deep drawl similar to that of the former Arkansas governor, to fight, "as President Clinton did, to grow the middle class."
Democrats have pointedly avoided the past six years of Democratic rule in Washington as President Obama remains deeply unpopular in the state — as unpopular, in fact, as McConnell in a recent poll.
While she was eager to campaign with Clinton, the same isn't true with Obama. Asked in an MSNBC interview this week whether she'd want him to campaign for her, Grimes demurred.
"This race is one that's about putting the people of this state first and I speak for myself, and don't need any other surrogate to do that," she said.
It's McConnell's numbers that give Democrats hope of taking down the long-time Republican leader. But they are also a reminder that Grimes has a tough task in outrunning Obama in the state, after he lost it by more than 20 percent in 2012.
One of the last remaining popular Democratic Party figures in the South, Clinton has stepped in as the primary big-name surrogate for Grimes, having pledged his full support to the candidate from the start.
Clinton is a longtime family friend of the Lundergans, and Grimes's father, Jerry Lundergan, acted as a fundraiser and organizer for Clinton in Kentucky and chaired Hillary Clinton's Kentucky campaign in the 2008 presidential race. Bill Clinton advised Grimes on the race before she decided to jump in.
Despite some criticism from Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), looking to drum up controversy over the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other allegations of infidelity while in office, Clinton proved a valuable asset to Grimes even before he took the stage.
The event drew 1,200 supporters and raised more than $600,000 for the candidate, who's led the pack of Democratic Senate candidates in fundraising since she launched her underdog bid against the 29-year veteran last year.
Showcasing his famous charm offensive and knack for translating wonkish policy details to messages that connect, Clinton touted Grimes as a compromiser willing to work for the Bluegrass State up against a self-serving obstructionist, though he never mentioned McConnell by name.
Republicans believe the healthcare reform law is a liability for Grimes, but Democrats think it could be an asset because Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, is one of the few Southern governors to fully implement the law.
Clinton framed the debate over the law as a choice between fixing it and sulking over it.
"The other choice is to just pout," he said. "If your party is not in the White House, make as many problems as you can, stop anything good from happening, and if you can't stop it at least badmouth and then ... when there's a problem, do everything you can to make sure the problem is never fixed."
The former president added: "Now it may work in an election to get everyone all torn up and upset and have everybody mad all the time, but it's a dumb way to run a country, or a business, or a state, or a school, or a sports team or a family."
He decried the "discouraging" effect of negative attacks, and suggested those attacks could dampen turnout in November — but urged supporters not to tune out.
Clinton touted Grimes's jobs plan — which, he said, he had read in its entirety, "unlike most people" — as "an expression of trust in the people of Kentucky."
"This is an expression of a belief in you, in the dignity of work, in the right to work and recognizing that if everybody had a decent job, about 90 percent of our problems would be solved before talking about anything else," Clinton said, brandishing the plan.
Grimes spoke before Clinton and after a series of Kentucky Democratic elected officials, including Beshear and Rep. John Yarmuth (D). While Clinton decried name-calling, she went on sharper attack against McConnell, calling him "hyperpartisan" and blaming him for the gridlock in Washington.
"Mitch McConnell is out of touch, he is out of ideas, and come November, with your help and support, he will be out of time," she said to cheers from the crowd.
She pitched the basic planks of her platform — minimum wage, a bill to encourage the hiring of veterans, funding for early childhood education and fair pay for women — as policies focused on strengthening the middle class.
"My vision begins and ends with the middle class," said Grimes.
As with many of Grimes's previous events, the Tuesday fundraiser was heavy on symbol-laden theatrics. The University of Kentucky's female a cappella group "Paws and Listen" sang Destiny's Child's "Survivor" and Alicia Keys's "Girl on Fire," two songs about female empowerment, before state politicos took the stage. Grimes and Clinton walked onstage to Katy Perry's similarly symbolic "Roar."
The candidate is making a concerted bid for female voters in her hope to become the state's first female senator, which Democrats believe could be important to an upset victory.
Grimes later joked, to knee-slapping guffaws from Clinton and chuckles from the crowd, that McConnell's campaign theme song might be the Beatles's classic "Can't Buy Me Love," because of all of the millions he had already spent on the race.
In contrast, she offered a trio of songs as themes for her own campaign.
"I'm a Neil Diamond 'Kentucky Woman' through and through," she said. "But you will hear, over the course of this campaign, especially on behalf of the women of this state — 53 percent of the electorate — a little Katy Perry 'Roar'! And by the end of this, by the end of this race, eight months from now, we'll be bringing home our Kentucky girl Miley Cyrus with a little 'Wrecking Ball' straight to the guardian of gridlock."