'I [heart] Bubba."
That's the slogan that greeted delegates handed a map prepared by the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. The slogan, however, was not a reference to the nickname of President Clinton, who will speak at the Democratic National Convention tomorrow night; it was an ad for the Denver location of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant chain.
But, contrary to the ad's message, many Democratic delegates no longer love Mr. Clinton. "His comments were devastating," a delegate, Hellen Sims of San Jose, Calif., said, referring to Mr. Clinton's references to race during the primary campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Many convention delegates, particularly African-Americans, still bristle at Mr. Clinton's campaign trail faux pas, which included the use of the phrase "fairy tale" to describe Mr. Obama's rise to prominence after delivering an anti-war speech in 2002, his reference to the candidate as a "kid," and his comparison of Mr. Obama to Jesse Jackson.
Wearing a blue Barack Obama t-shirt, Ms. Sims said Mr. Clinton will have some work to do tomorrow night if he is to regain her allegiance. "I hope this convention gives him a chance to redeem himself."
Asked what it would take, Ms. Sims said "some humility."
With so much focus on the political division between supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, the broader story of Mr. Clinton's place in history — and his deserved primetime address at the Democratic National Convention — is being overshadowed.
For Mr. Clinton, Wednesday night offers a night of epic significance: The chance to regain his place within the Democratic pantheon, to repair his relationship with African-Americans, and to remove the perception that he puts himself first before his party.
A California delegate, Rachel Pelham, 20, browsed the Internet wearing a Young Democrats of Arkansas t-shirt. A decade or more ago such clothing would signal a passionate supporter of Mr. Clinton's. Not today. "In the past five or six months he hasn't behaved with the finesse we've come to expect from him," Ms. Pelham said. "He's pushed things one step too far, too many times."
For a majority of the delegates and voters, Mr. Obama represents the future; Mr. Clinton, even at his best, is ancient history. Even supporters of Mrs. Clinton are too focused on their candidate to spend much time thinking about her husband.
For Ms. Pelham, who was 12 when Mr. Clinton left office, memories of his achievements are distant. "My opinion of his standing is not what people were experiencing at the time but people's nostalgia for that time," she said.
The sentiments of the Democratic rank and file are remarkable when viewed in political perspective. Mr. Clinton, after all, was the first Democratic president to serve two full terms since Franklin Roosevelt. He helped steer the party to sensibility after it ventured to the far left. Even when Mr. Clinton's personal foibles threatened to bring down his presidency, Democrats rallied to his defense.
In some ways, Mr. Clinton is being treated like an old rascally uncle, beloved in a sense, but held at arms length. During the primary campaign Mr. Clinton performed well when he delivered crisp, detailed speeches on his wife's behalf in secondary press markets, such as Portland, Maine and Millvale, Pa. I saw him exit a speaking venue in Millvale, give the thumbs up to a warm crowd, and walk past Secret Service agents to embrace a fragile old woman. The party won't have the luxury of keeping Mr. Clinton at arms' length when he speaks tomorrow, a night devoted to America's foreign policy.
Even though Mr. Clinton may now be thought of as a fossilized remnant of an ancient age, Mr. Obama's campaign would be wise to borrow from the former president's message. Mr. Clinton was the last Democrat to win a sweeping victory. After the last economic downturn in 1992, Mr. Clinton made good on his promise to "focus like a laser beam on the economy." His blend of personal politics — "I feel your pain" — and programmatic policy resonated throughout the industrial Midwest, exactly those areas where Mr. Obama is the weakest.
Given the closeness of the current presidential campaign and the tough state of the economy, a dose of Clintonism — perhaps without Mr. Clinton — might be exactly what Mr. Obama needs.
"He was wonderful about creating jobs," a delegate for Mr. Obama, Todd Ogle, said of Mr. Clinton.
It's might seem strange then that Mr. Clinton's speech at the convention will focus on foreign affairs, not the economy. That's because Mr. Obama's strategists probably want someone other than Mr. Clinton to be the person who feels the pain of American voters, Mr. Obama. Because for Mr. Obama's campaign, the message leaving Denver has to be "I [heart] Barack."
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.