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Republicans push to pre-empt Bill Clinton

Republicans are trying to preempt President Clinton's prime time address to the Democratic convention on Wednesday by claiming the former president will speak more about his economic record than President Obama's.

The GOP hopes that Clinton's speech will underscore discontent among independents and swing voters longing for the economic success of the 1990s, rather than providing a boost to an Obama campaign looking to benefit from the Clinton's electoral magic.

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The former president has a difficult task — cheerleading for a president whom he's had a difficult relationship with in the past and doing so in a way that seems neither insincere nor excessively nostalgic. For the speech to be effective, Clinton must argue successfully that his values and policies are the same as the current president — but also explain why the economy is not succeeding as it did during his tenure.

It's the latter point that the GOP looks primed to highlight heading into Wednesday evening. At an event in Iowa earlier in the day, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan challenged Clinton to speak as positively of Obama's record as he would his own.

“My guess is we’ll get a great rendition of how good things were in the 1990s, but we’re not going to hear much about how things have been in the last four years,” Ryan said.

And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — perhaps Clinton's greatest foe in the White House — said the former president's choice for a prime time slot represented an "enormous risk."

"He was just a heck of a lot better president than Barack Obama," Gingrich told USA Today. "It will remind you how pathetically bad Obama has been."

While Democrats are generally pleased that Clinton will be speaking on behalf of Obama — a USA Today/Gallup poll released this month showed nearly seven in 10 saw the former president favorably — there is some apprehension surrounding the speech.

Little is known about its contents. Obama campaign aides said as recently as Tuesday that they had not yet seen his planned remarks, where the former president will formally put forward Obama's name for the presidential nomination.

And, unlike other convention night speakers, the Clinton team has not previewed the address publicly or granted advance interviews, aside from an exclusive interview with NBC News that will air on the "Nightly News" just hours before Clinton is set to speak.

Obama traveling press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that the campaign has "been in close contact" with the former president, and was "sure" that "when he’s done, we’ll see them."

"We have absolute confidence about what he’s going to say," Psaki continued. "And we think, who better to deliver a message to the American people about the choice middle-class families in this country are facing, the difference between what the vision President Obama is presenting to the American people and the vision Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are presenting?"

That confidence was echoed by other Democrats — including aide to both presidents, Rahm Emanuel, who called Gingrich's remarks "ridiculous" during an interview with ABC on Wednesday — who have seen Clinton rise to the occasion time and again.

“A former president who is very popular who can explain about the policies and the parallel tracks the two presidents have had in the sense of investing in education, investing in research and development, alternative energy and green energy and a responsible way of balancing the budget," Emanuel said. "I think he can do nothing but help and the notion that Newt is going to give our party strategic advice, no thank you.”

But the Romney campaign sees an opportunity to turn Wednesday's convention address into an asset, rather than a liability. Mitt Romney himself has made driving a wedge between Obama and Clinton a frequent refrain on the campaign trail, often describing Obama — in contrast to Clinton — as "an old school liberal whose first instinct is to see free enterprise as the villain and government as the hero."

"Almost a generation ago, Bill Clinton announced that the Era of Big Government was over. Even a former McGovern campaign worker like President Clinton was signaling to his own party that Democrats should no longer try to govern by proposing a new program for every problem," Romney said earlier this year. "President Obama tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship. It’s enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons — but really it runs much deeper."

And, in recent campaign ads hammering a memo that would allow states greater flexibility to implement welfare reform, the Romney campaign has insinuated Obama is moving to undermining bipartisan compromises reached by Clinton. Ryan reiterated that attack on the trail on Wednesday, saying Obama was "rolling back" Clinton's achievements.

Clinton blasted similar Romney campaign attacks as "not true" in a statement last month.

“The administration has taken important steps to ensure that the work requirement is retained and that waivers will be granted only if a state can demonstrate that more people will be moved into work under its new approach,” Clinton said. “The welfare time limits, another important feature of the 1996 act, will not be waived.”

Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in a statement Wednesday that Obama's achievements on the economy paled to those of President Clinton.

“When it comes to the state of the economy, President Obama just can’t match President Clinton," Henneberg said. "Just this week, gas prices set a new record, the national debt topped $16 trillion, manufacturing slowed, and the number of Americans on food stamps hit a record high. Mitt Romney will reverse President Obama’s record of decline and disappointment by passing pro-growth policies that will get Americans back to work.”

By so frequently invoking the former president, the Romney team runs the risk of pushing him into a closer alliance with Obama.

An article published in last week's New Yorker examined the sometimes contentious relationship between the men, writer Ryan Lizza relating a story of Clinton having told now-deceased Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) during the 2008 campaign, "A few years ago, this guy would have been carrying our bags." The article, also, however talked about how Obama reached out to the former president, asking him to a golf game and offering him the primetime slot Wednesday — a time usually reserved for the vice president. (Vice President Biden will speak Thursday shortly before Obama.)

And Clinton is playing an increasingly prominent role in helping Obama's reelection effort. A commercial featuring Clinton speaking directly to the camera has gotten major play during the convention coverage this week, and the prime time slot suggests the value Team Obama places on Clinton's services — and his message.

In the mean time, Obama's campaign is hopeful that Clinton can once again strike a tone that appeals to the American people — and ties the outcomes of the 1990s to those today without undermining Obama.

“Certainly Barack Obama’s not Bill Clinton,” Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said Wednesday on CNN, “but the theory of the case that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had were, everybody needs to pay their fair share and we need to invest in middle-class security.”