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New Haven - Former president Bill Clinton had a problem Sunday morning as he looked out over the packed gymnasium full of signs and stickers advertising the Senate bid of his old law school classmate, Richard Blumenthal.
Clinton's popularity among this upbeat crowd of around 2,000, the former president warned, threatened to get in the way of his argument.
Clinton's welcome was rapturous, but his 35-minute speech was deliberate, a forceful sermon in favor of the agenda of President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats as the best hope to right the nation's economy.
And without mentioning the name of Republican Linda McMahon, he urged Democrats not to make this state's Senate race a referendum on national economic anxieties, but rather a choice between McMahon, a former professional wrestling executive, and Blumenthal, the state's popular attorney general for nearly 20 years.
"All over America what members of the other party want to do is just make this a referendum on people's disappointment, or anger, or apathy, with a good dose of amnesia thrown in," Clinton said. "And if this is a referendum, we've got a lot of trouble here."
But the mid-term election is "not a referendum, it's a choice," Clinton said, between embracing the current administration's efforts to revive the economy or returning political power to Republicans, who he said had put the country into a "$3 trillion hole."
Clinton also heaped praise on Blumenthal, whom he has known since their days as law students at Yale University.
"I'm not here as a courtesy," Clinton said. "He was a good person when I met him, he is a good person today, he has lived an honorable, good public life, and he has served you well."
The Sunday morning rally at Wilbur Cross High School was intended to add needed enthusiasm to the Blumenthal campaign, which at times has seemed to struggle for its footing against the onslaught of McMahon.
McMahon, who has spent well over $20 million of her own personal fortune on her challenge to Blumenthal, has pulled into contention in recent public polls. That campaign has significantly unnerved Democratic insiders with a broad campaign of television and direct mail advertising, much of it aimed at portraying Blumenthal - for years one of the most well-liked elected officials in Connecticut - as a liar and "career politician."
Introducing Clinton, Blumenthal criticized McMahon's spending, and her preparedness, seizing on a recent news report in which the Republican said she was not certain if she would have opposed the Broadwater proposal, which would have brought a massive liquefied natural gas terminal to the center of Long Island Sound. Blumenthal, along with other state officials, helped defeat the proposal.
"My opponent may have more money, but I have twenty years of ... support here today," Blumenthal said, as the crowd drowned him out with applause.
Voters of Connecticut, he added moments later, "want an election, not an auction."
The Clinton visit would help Blumenthal with fundraising, however, as some attendees paid $5,000 for a chance to have a picture taken with the president.
In a written statement, the McMahon campaign said Clinton's appearance with Blumenthal was a sign of desperation.
"Linda has all the momentum in this race," McMahon spokesman Ed Patru said, movement the campaign attributes to Blumenthal's connection to unpopular economic policies of the Obama administration.
"With all the polls moving in the wrong direction for Blumenthal," the statement continued, "it's very clear that President Clinton was deployed to Connecticut because Blumenthal's campaign is in serious trouble."
Clinton's pep talk on the Democrats' record and strategy for job growth showed the advantage of using "substance" on the campaign trail, said Kevin Burns of Branford, who runs Precision Combustion, a 37-employee research and development firm working on fuel cell components.
"I think substance wins," Burns said. "People have to think you're real, you come through and deal with real issues, and what touches them. It isn't just Pollyanna, it isn't just 'Hey, I'm going to get you what you need.' That's part of why there's irritation and anger out there now. They think they're being fed stuff. People want more adult conversation."
Burns said McMahon's advantage was "projection power," but that neither she nor Republicans nationally had outlined a convincing policy path that would help Connecticut and the economy.
"I don't think Linda has in any way portrayed what that is going to be," Burns said. "... They're saying to feed the beast, keep feeding more money into the place they've been feeding it to, and eventually it's going to work. That doesn't mean the Democrats have necessarily had the right position. They're trying a different position."
But the Democrats also lag behind Republican in enthusiasm, something recent polls have shown and that Clinton warned against.
"The main purpose of this talk," he said, jabbing a finger toward the crowd, "is to give you points you can make to people who are not here."
The irritation and anger Burns described was standing across the street from the high school, in the form of a line of protesters bearing "Block Blumy" signs, a handful of flags and homemade placards from the tea party movement.
As cars filed out of the parking lot, Mike Babij of New Britain shouted, "Socialist" at those who held up Blumenthal signs. He said in a brief interview that he believed the policies of the Obama administration were leading America toward greater reliance on the state, and eventually toward socialism.
Babij also said he was concerned about illegal immigrants finding access to American social service programs.
Obama is "doing nothing to create an atmosphere for business in this country," Babij said.
Meanwhile, Isiah Lee and Lea Winter, two students from Wilbur Cross who had been invited by school administrators to attend the Clinton event, waded into the protesters to engage them in debate.
The moment was a case study in what Clinton had just called the "background music" drowning out political debate in the country.
Babij and another man called out to Lee that President Obama, who was born in Hawaii, is "a Kenyan."
Lee, who is black, retorted that the sudden focus on the citizenship of the nation's first black president was "racist."
Asked if he thought the president was an American citizen, Babij said, "No, he hasn't produced a birth certificate."
A reporter pointed out that the state of Hawaii published Obama's birth certificate on its website during the 2008 presidential campaign.
"Not a valid birth certificate," Babij said. "... I haven't seen the Hawaiian one, but I know it's a falsity."
Lee and Winter talked for several minutes with many of the protesters, engaging in what seemed a polite debate, though unlikely to have changed any minds.
Babij's insistence that Obama is not a citizen was related to his race, Lee said, no matter what Babij said.
"I don't buy that," he said. "I think they're afraid to say - they can't come out here and put up posters that say 'I don't want a black guy president, and I'm not afraid to say it.' They want to go over there and say they don't like his policies, and say some of the things he does are unconstitutional."