OSKALOOSA, Iowa -- When Illinois Senator Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, was first introduced to a few hundred Democrats at a café on Independence Day morning, there were polite cheers, but also questions: Who is she? What is Obama's family like?
Two days earlier, at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, an entirely different response greeted former president Bill Clinton as he kicked off a campaign tour with his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. The moment he took the microphone, the crowd of 7,000 turned impossibly still, affording him a reverential hush.
The contrasting reactions were telling: Bill Clinton's rock-star reception throughout Iowa this week affirms Hillary Clinton's strategic decision to draw on her husband's undiminished popularity among many Democrats, even if it means a steady emphasis on the past. Obama, one of her two top rivals, is engaging audiences as the fresh face with a vision for a less partisan future -- with neither a Bush nor a Clinton in the White House.
For Clinton's campaign -- and for many of her supporters -- the wistfulness for the nation's 42d president is more than mere nostalgia: Times were good under Bill Clinton last decade, they argue, and she's the one who can bring back those halcyon days.
"I know some people sort of say, 'Well, you know, look at them, they're old, they're sort of yesterday's news,' " Bill Clinton said at a rally Tuesday at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "Yesterday's news was pretty good."
It was clear from the Clintons' first major campaign swing through Iowa together this week that this message is central to Hillary Clinton's pitch to voters. Not only did she and her husband repeatedly emphasize the legacy of the Clinton presidency, the prominent Iowans who introduced them made a point of detailing his record on the economy, foreign policy, and the budget -- "a pretty darn wonderful period in American history," one congressman called it.
Even Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful stab at universal healthcare in her husband's first term, largely panned at the time as a political debacle for her and the president, is now portrayed as a noble attempt to solve a stubborn problem. "I'm proud that we stood up and said, 'This is what the right thing to do in America is,' " she said in Iowa City.
This wind-back-the-clock approach is not unique to Clinton's campaign -- indeed, all the Democratic candidates are basing their campaigns in part on a promise to reverse the course that President Bush has set the country on over the past 6 1/2 years. But their messages are not as historically rooted as Clinton's, and in Obama's case, he's looking to highlight that distinction.
As the Clintons were campaigning here this week, Obama arrived in the eastern part of the state and worked his way west. On Tuesday night, he held a rally in downtown Fairfield and offered a vision for the future that made little mention of the past.
"It's about a hunger all across America for something new," Obama said in trying to explain why his appearances typically draw large crowds. "People want a change in the pulse of the life of this country."
Afterward, Ron Blair, a 58-year-old sales and marketing consultant from Fairfield, was standing on a red, white, and blue park bench watching Obama greet supporters. Asked for his thoughts on Clinton's approach vs. Obama's, he said, "Nostalgia sells. [But] it doesn't work for me. I think Barack, for me, touches the right chord. . . . It's not the '90s. He's touching 2010. He's touching the future."
Obama himself said that while he respects what Bill Clinton did for the country, his sights are set on the horizon.
"What we're more interested in is in looking forward, not looking backward," he told the Associated Press. "I think the American people feel the same way. They are looking for a way to break out of the harsh partisanship and the old arguments and solve problems."
But it is more a stylistic difference than a substantive one, because both candidates are putting forth forward-looking proposals. This week in Iowa Obama argued that the country could raise minimum fuel efficiency standards by 20 miles per gallon, while Clinton called for redirecting oil company subsidies to create "green-collar" jobs in alternative energy industries.
The mood at both Clinton and Obama's rallies was upbeat, though Clinton's events -- owing to her husband's presence and the fact that they were in larger cities -- were slightly more festive and drew more people. (A campaign stop at a private home in Mount Pleasant drew a few hundred people, while his rally in Fairfield drew 2,000 to 2,500, according to an unofficial police count.)
Their high-profile trips to Iowa kick off what's sure to be a period of furious politicking in the Hawkeye State, as Democrats and Republicans position themselves for the first-in-the-nation caucuses, currently scheduled for January. Clinton's visit seemed designed to jumpstart her efforts in a state where polls have shown her in second and third place, behind Edwards in some polls and both Edwards and Obama in others. Her volunteers were practically forcing clipboards into people's hands to build the grass-roots network.
But her husband was her greatest weapon here: We come as a package, the Clintons seemed to be saying, and voters were eating it up.
"If his wife is anything like him . . . " said Debbie McDowell, a 50-year-old teacher from Iowa City, not finishing the thought. McDowell, who attended Tuesday's Iowa City rally, is still undecided, but she burst into a wide smile when asked about Bill Clinton. "I really admire him," she said.
"I think he would give her good advice," said Joyce Brown, a 66-year-old from Colfax who works part time in a dental office.
Of course, making Bill Clinton the centerpiece of her campaign carries risks, too, particularly if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination and faces renewed anti-Clinton vitriol from the Republican right. To many, the former president embarrassed the country by having a relationship with a White House intern, trying to cover it up, and ultimately being impeached for it.
"Everyone is concerned about the Bill factor," said Julie Philips , 57, of Norwalk, who works in financial services and came to the Des Moines event.
Beyond the moral questions, Bill Clinton's eight years as president will surely be a major campaign issue next year if his wife emerges as the Democratic nominee. Republican presidential contenders are already accusing him of not paying terrorist threats enough heed, and of not adequately maintaining the military.
When Bill Clinton first ran for president, in 1992, he didn't compete in the Iowa caucuses, knowing he wouldn't stand a chance against primary rival Tom Harkin, an Iowa senator. But what he lacks in strategic know-how about what it takes to win Iowa, he makes up for in star power.
And for now, Hillary Clinton is milking that for all it's worth, showcasing him as a symbol of an era of peace and prosperity. She said of his presidency during an appearance in Des Moines: "That bridge to the 21st century that Bill said he was going to build -- it had taken shape. We were ready to walk across it."
Or, as Bill Clinton put it the next day in Iowa City, "We've almost, like, got to restart the 21st century now."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.