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Ex-president takes step into Connecticut's fray

WASHINGTON -- As president, Bill Clinton was a master juggler of issues and agendas. His every move seemed intended to address some problem of the moment, while also shifting the debate toward goals that he alone saw clearly.

He could make Americans of all backgrounds feel respected, listened to, even cared for -- but also worked over and manipulated. After eight years, a cloud of ``Clinton fatigue" hung over the 2000 election, and many Americans were drawn to George W. Bush because of his simple, direct style.

Now, Bill Clinton has one obvious agenda -- the political career of his wife, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. And yesterday he followed it, and perhaps other unseen agendas, into the biggest political fight of the moment.

The former president's decision to swoop into Connecticut at a low moment in the reelection campaign of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, who stands accused of being too supportive of the Bush administration, and to offer his endorsement of the embattled senator, was high drama.

The former president speaks out for the Lieberman campaign. A5.

Lieberman's poll numbers have fallen behind those of his antiwar Democratic challenger, Ned Lamont, with just two weeks until the primary; should Lieberman lose, he plans to run in November as an independent. That would force national Democrats to choose between Lamont, the party's elected nominee, and Lieberman, who would be a better bet to win a three-way race in November.

Should national Democrats back Lieberman in big numbers, they would stand accused of abandoning the party's core antiwar voters. However, if leading Democrats supported Lamont, and if Lieberman were to win, there would be no end to the havoc a bruised and resentful Lieberman could wreak on his party. If control of the Senate were at stake, Lieberman could choose to vote with the Republicans.

It's a complicated situation that has led some national Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, to hedge their bets, backing Lieberman in the primary but refusing to commit to him in November. And now, into the stew comes Bill Clinton, whose motives can only be guessed at.

One theory is that Clinton is helping an old friend. The former president campaigned for Lieberman in his very first run for the state Senate, back in 1970. Two decades later, Lieberman became the first US senator outside the South to endorse Clinton for president.

But if loyalty were the bottom line for Clinton, he'd be campaigning for his longtime loyal aide, Deval L. Patrick, who is running for governor of Massachusetts; Clinton's absence in Massachusetts has been notable. Moreover, Lieberman hasn't been such a good friend. In 1998, he delivered a memorable denunciation of Clinton's morally sleazy conduct regarding Monica S. Lewinsky. Some Clintonites believe the speech in fact benefited Clinton, by portraying his offense as moral rather than legal; but there's no suggestion that Lieberman had ever intended to be helpful.

Then again, Clinton may be relishing an opportunity to bring Lieberman back into his debt. Many people have noted Clinton's desire to win over former rivals and critics, as evidenced by his deepening bond with former President George H. W. Bush.

Most likely, however, Clinton's motivation has little to do with friendship: He's helping to frame perceptions of Democrats for 2006 and 2008.

A few weeks ago, Clinton bemoaned the fact that Democrats were warring among themselves over the Iraq issue. ``If we allow our differences over what to do now in Iraq to divide us instead of focusing on replacing Republicans in Congress, that's the nuttiest strategy I've ever heard in my life," he said.

Clinton knows that if national Democrats abandon Lieberman, Republicans will argue that Democrats are the captives of the angry, antiwar left. He also knows that the party's leading presidential aspirants -- especially Hillary Clinton -- can't embrace Lieberman without alienating the increasingly influential liberal blogosphere. A former president can get away with such things far more easily than current contenders can.

And there's another potential agenda: By supporting Lieberman so strongly, Clinton earns the right to call on Lieberman to withdraw from the race if Lamont beats him soundly. Lieberman may resist, but it's hard to refuse a request from a former president made in the name of party unity.

Such a move would, in turn, earn Clinton the gratitude of Lamont, and give him further leverage down the road.

Years of frustrating losses have made many Democrats hungry for the kind of full-throated opposition embodied by Lamont; but it's also made them nostalgic for the political skills of Bill Clinton, who knows better than any of them how to keep his eyes on the prize.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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