This story has been updated
NASHUA, New Hampshire – Bill Clinton hit the campaign trail by himself for the first time in 2016 here Monday with two stops supporting Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. But while he’s an enormous asset to his wife as one of the most popular politicians in the country – and especially at this critical moment with just over a month to go before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary – the debut outing could be overshadowed by Donald Trump’s aggressive attempts to damage both Clintons by reviving the husband’s sexual dalliances.
Clinton made no mention of Trump by name during his first stop here Monday morning, and dodged questions on the GOP front-runner from reporters on the rope-line. But he spoke personally about this relationship with his wife, recalling when they first met over 40 years ago at Yale Law School. ”We fell in love,” he said, ”Everything she touched, she made better.”
“I thought she was the most amazing person,” he continued, recounting her career from his law school onwards as he saw it.
Much of his speech was low-key. He closed with a meditation of what it takes to be president, saying he’s studied both successful and especially less successful presidents. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this,” Clinton said. “I do not believe in my lifetime anybody has run for the job who is better qualified by experience, knowledge and temperament than Hillary.”
The former president, who can inspire big crowds, command massive media attention, and rake in millions of dollars wherever he travels for his wife, will stump in again for Clinton in Exeter Monday afternoon.
But looming over his stops will be the shadow of Trump’s latest accusations.
Over the past week, Trump has used almost every public appearance he makes, along with his powerful Twitter feed of more than 5 million followers, to accuse Bill Clinton of being “one of the great women abusers of all time,” as he said on CNN this morning, and to allege that “Hillary was an enabler” who worked to cover up her husband’s dalliances.
The Republican front-runner has made no hint of giving up the crusade, and will campaign just about 20 miles away from Bill Clinton today when he headlines a rally in Lowell, Massachusetts. He will almost certainly hit the message again, while Bill Clinton is unlikely to address it earlier in the day.
The billionaire’s attacks are likely not an effective strategy for a general election audience, and some Clinton allies think they could actually backfire. “His style of attack has always benefited Hillary Clinton in the end,” said Bill Burton, a former Obama campaign strategist. “She’s at her best when she’s under unfair attack. In a lot of ways, I think she would rather run against a Donald Trump than a lot of other folks.”
But the attack carries some risk and is a distraction if nothing else. She’s had to ignore questions from the press on Trump’s comments at multiple stops, and on Sunday, while campaigning in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton was heckled by a Republican state representative about her husband’s alleged sexual impropriety.
And Trump could be trying to blunt Bill Clinton’s power in the campaign by injecting uncomfortable questions into the political conversation. At least five women have claimed to have affairs with Clinton, and three have accused him of unwanted sexual advances, none of which have been proven. It was in New Hampshire in 1992 that allegations of an affair by Gennifer Flowers nearly tanked Clinton’s first presidential bid.
The former president is at his best when he can play the role of elder statesman and “explainer in chief,” as he did during his well-received 2012 Democratic National Convention speech. But he also has a history of losing his composure in the face of attacks that get under his skin, with sometimes damaging consequences. As Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign stumbled, for instance, the Obama campaign intentionally needled her husband, provoking him to make angrily respond in a series of comments that led to allegations of racial insensitivity and more.
It’s possible Trump is trying to do the same now by striking a nerve. Trump’s attacks also risk reintroducing the Monica Lewinsky in the more damaging context of sexual harassment at a time when culture has become acutely attuned to feminism.
Trump is a terrible messenger on gender issues. This dustup started only after Trump used a vulgar Yiddish term to describe Clinton’s loss in the 2008 primary. Clinton fired back by accusing Trump of sexism, provoking his even more heated response.
But the escalation underscores the danger of any candidate picking a fight with Trump in the 2016 election.
“It was her doing that started this. Why, because she was the one that opened up on Trump,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist. “By Hillary attacking him, it make him no longer a fringe candidate but a serious player in the election. If the frontrunner attacks you, you’re suddenly important.”
“The best thing would have been to let Donald Trump stay in the playpen of the Republican primary, instead they let him out,” Sheinkopf added.
But none of this may matter to the hundreds expected to turn out to see Bill Clinton speak Monday. And her Democratic primary rival seems to have no interest in joining Trump’s crusade. ”We have got more important things to worry about in this country than Bill Clinton’s sex life,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said Sunday on CNN.
Supporters who turned out at Clinton’s first stop here said Trump’s attacks only galvanized their support for Clinton. “I just want Trump to keep doing that,” said Sarah Walker, who emigrated from Uganda 16 years ago, and is looking forward to casting her very first vote as a U.S. citizen for Clinton next month. “He’s only made us love Hillary Clinton more and more.”
Diane Chubb, who is volunteering for Clinton’s campaign, said Bill Clinton is able to discuss the former secretary of state as a mother and a wife in a way that she sometimes has trouble presenting herself. “Trump is the last one would should say anything about this,” she said, pointing to his long string of controversial comments about women.