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Clinton woos supporters for Tsongas

Former president Bill Clinton and Governor Deval Patrick spoke at a rally for congressional candidate Niki Tsongas in Lowell yesterday. Clinton arrived two hours late from New York. Former president Bill Clinton and Governor Deval Patrick spoke at a rally for congressional candidate Niki Tsongas in Lowell yesterday. Clinton arrived two hours late from New York. (Jon Chase for the Boston Globe)

LOWELL - Former president Bill Clinton said there was meaning in the fact that he arrived two hours late last night to support Niki Tsongas's tightening battle to keep her husband's old Congressional seat from Republican control.

"This is not a casual moment," Clinton told more than 2,000 Tsongas supporters who waited for him at Lowell Memorial Auditorium. "The world is looking to see whether America will change. America will be looking at you to see what course you will take."

Clinton said his drive from New York - caused by plane problems - showed how important he views Tsongas's battle to win the Fifth District in a special election on Oct. 16.

Her opponent, Jim Ogonowski, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel whose brother, John, was captain of the first plane hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They are running to replace longtime Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan, who vacated the seat earlier this year to become chancellor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

With little more than two weeks before the election, some pundits have said Tsongas is underperforming in polls and does not have a lock on the seat Democrats have held for 33 years.

Clinton sought to rally Tsongas's supporters last night by casting the race as a continuation of the 2006 Congressional contests, when Republicans began losing their grip on Washington.

"The thing I loved about the 2006 election in America is Americans started thinking again. That was really bad luck for the experiment in extremism in Washington," he said.

He drew some of the loudest applause when he alluded to his wife's run for the Democratic nomination for president.

"I'm also at a point in my life where I'm convinced women should run everything. I certainly believe it's been too long since you had a woman in Congress from Massachusetts, and I think you should lead the way," he said to Tsongas, a dean at Middlesex Community College.

Tsongas, who introduced Clinton, said she could never have dreamed she would be running for Congress when her husband, Paul, battled Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.

"Fifteen years ago, I might have had a very different vision for a night like this - that I would be the former first lady, perhaps introducing Bill Clinton as he ran for Congress. But history painted a different picture," she said.

"More than at any time I can remember, this country is on the wrong course, and I am here ready to help lead change," she said, in brief prepared remarks focusing on a need for change in tone and direction in Washington.

Clinton pointed out that Paul Tsongas, who died in 1997 of cancer, beat him in the 1992 New Hampshire primary.

In that race, Paul Tsongas also accused Clinton of being willing to say anything to get elected.

But if Clinton was stung, he is over it. "Somewhere, Paul Tsongas is smiling down on us here tonight," he told the crowd, which included scores of area college students who shouted, "We love you, Bill!"

Clinton focused his talk on Iraq and President Bush's promise to veto extending government healthcare benefits to millions of poor children.

"The president thinks it's just the worst idea he ever heard. The idea we could be giving kids healthcare when we could be giving a millionaire like Bill Clinton a tax cut," Clinton said.

A fund-raiser held last night with Clinton's appearance was expected to bring in $150,000 for the Tsongas camp, said Katie Elbert, campaign communications director.

Governor Deval Patrick spoke earlier in the evening as Tsongas's staff sought to keep people from heading home before Clinton arrived.

Patrick said voters may think Tsongas and Ogonowski's views sound similar.

"That's because if you are a Republican running to go to Washington, you run as fast as possible away from the administration in Washington," he said.

Donald Miller, a doctor from Andover, said his family and friends tired of waiting for Clinton and left, but he chose to stay. "I wouldn't wait around for anybody else. It's like staying up to see the Beatles - well not quite that big, but about a notch below," he said, wearing a T-shirt with an image of Clinton on the black dog logo for a Martha's Vineyard pub.

Luther E. McIlwain, an 86-year-old World War II veteran with the Tuskegee Airmen, said he stayed up past his bedtime to see Clinton. "I'm just happy he could fit it in his schedule to come up here and plug for Niki," the Methuen man said.

He refused to guess whether Clinton would put her campaign over the top. "I'm from the old school; I don't predict anything. But I hope so," he said.

Clinton's appearance drew protest from the Merrimack Valley Vietnam Veterans, who opposed his speaking for a political fund-raiser at a hall devoted to veterans. The group took down its flag in the lobby.

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