Bill Clinton avoids Trump in solo debut on campaign trail

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Bill ClintonBill ClintonPicking longtime fixer as chief of staff proves Clinton hasn't changed The Trail 2016: Wikissues The Mormons are actually beating progressives on rape advocacy MORE came off the sidelines of the presidential campaign on Monday, displaying a cautious, controlled style as he sought to aid his wife, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from New Hampshire Senate debate Trump losing cash race in final weeks Report: Biden on top of Clinton's short list for secretary of State MORE, in her battle for the Democratic nomination.

Making his first solo appearance of the election cycle in Nashua, N.H., he chose his words carefully, refusing to take the bait from Republican front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from New Hampshire Senate debate Trump losing cash race in final weeks Vulnerable GOP senator questions opponent's American heritage MORE, who last week began invoking the former president’s “abuse” of women.

That approach carried over into brief rope-line interviews with ABC’s Cecilia Vega and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

Asked by Mitchell how he felt about the attacks from Trump, Bill Clinton swiped away the question with his hand. “How I feel is only relevant once they pick a nominee,” he said.  

“We’re trying to win a primary. We’re trying to do that first.”

Clinton insiders say they had always expected Republicans to bring up Bill Clinton’s past, as one New Hampshire legislator did on Sunday while shouting questions at Hillary Clinton during an appearance in the state.

But staunch allies of the Clintons think the subject, and Bill Clinton’s presence on the trail, will ultimately work in their favor.

“Bring it on,” one longtime Clinton associate said of Trump’s attacks. “Bill Clinton is still the best there is in politics today.”

Another longtime ally who is close with both Clintons said the former president’s history with women is “being brought up more for purely Republican base activation purposes, so [it] is likely something on the short-term horizon.

“I don’t think it has any broader impact on the general electorate or on the Democratic side, and in fact were it to continue to be pressed by Republicans, could backfire, as indeed it did in 1998,” the ally said, referring to the impeachment push related to the 42nd president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

In turning the other cheek, Bill Clinton is seemingly taking a different tack than in the 2008 campaign, when his at times huffy statements on the trail muddied his wife’s message and caused unwanted headlines. 

Most famously, he came under fire for bringing up Jesse Jackson’s successful Democratic primary wins in South Carolina, a reference some believed was intended to diminish then-Illinois Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPutin denies 2016 meddling: US is no 'banana republic' Black turnout key to House fight In this economy, Latinos are most frequent victims of wage theft MORE’s victory there and inject race into the contest. Hillary Clinton later apologized for those remarks.

Despite that history, the longtime ally said Bill Clinton’s return to the spotlight is “a net plus” for Hillary Clinton in her fight against 2016 rival Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPicking longtime fixer as chief of staff proves Clinton hasn't changed The Trail 2016: Wikissues Brent Budowsky: An epic battle for the future of Congress MORE (I-Vt.).

“He adds value not only because he is an inspiring and motivating speaker — not to mention a great fundraiser — but also is a reminder of a presidency that is widely seen as successful,” the ally said. “He’s truly a surrogate in chief.”

Republicans see things differently, and were quick Monday to highlight headlines from the last year when the former president took heat for his public statements and family foundation.

“If his gaffe-filled 2015 is any indicator, Bill Clinton has lost a few miles an hour off his fastball,” said Jeff Bechdel, the communications director for America Rising.

“In 2016, he’s less a ‘secret weapon’ on the campaign trail and closer to a walking liability. ... Bill Clinton reinforces all the negative attributes voters assign to Secretary Clinton: unethical, dishonest and untrustworthy.”

While Clinton World sees the former president as a net positive, his favorability rating sunk briefly underwater in a March 2008 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, leading to questions about his effectiveness as a surrogate.

The longtime ally said the key for Bill Clinton is to embrace his secondary role in the campaign by avoiding off-the-cuff interviews and limiting question-and-answer sessions.

“The candidates need to do Q and A; their surrogates, even former presidents, don’t need to. They’re not the ones running.”

The ally said that’s where the problems began for Hillary Clinton in 2008. While Bill Clinton did a couple of rope-line interviews on Monday in New Hampshire, it should have less impact now than it did then.

“She doesn’t face as strong an intra-party battle, so any ‘off-script’ moments this early in the year, should they occur, are likely to have much less electoral impact than they did in 2008,” the ally said.

In the speech on Monday morning, the former president meandered but kept his remarks relatively brief — just under 30 minutes, barely a warm-up for a politician who likes to run long.

“I do not believe in my lifetime anybody has run for this job at a moment of great importance who is better qualified by experience, knowledge and temperament,” he said.

“Almost everybody goes into the White House with the best of intentions. Whether they succeed or not depends on whether their instincts, their experience, their knowledge, and their psychological makeup fits the time.”

Lauded as the “explainer-in-chief” for his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech for Obama, he highlighted Hillary Clinton’s achievements as he sought to push back against Republican challenges of her record. He lauded the former secretary of State and former senator’s work on Iran sanctions, an arms treaty with Russia, and helping treat HIV and AIDS in Africa as he called her “the best chance to have the most rapid movement to more broadly shared prosperity.” 

“Most everybody tries to do what they say they would do when they are running ... but you also have to take seriously whether they have any chance at doing what they are say they are going to do and have a record of doing it,” Bill Clinton said before praising his wife’s social justice work in the early part of her career.

“She could have gone to work at a big law firm, get a fancy clerkship; she took a job at the Children’s Defense Fund,” he added. 

“She hadn’t been elected to anything, but everything she touched, she made better.”