BOSTON -- You won't find their names on any ballots. They're not the political pair that Democrats from around the country have gathered here to celebrate this week. But at this Democratic bash, they are a tantalizing side dish.
When Bill and Hillary Clinton appear in prime time tonight at Boston's Fleet Center, they will bask in the adulation of a party that still considers them its biggest superstars and nurtures hopes of one day seeing them in the White House again.
Their popularity is legendary, their ability to energize the Democratic Party faithful virtually unrivaled. And more than almost any other Democrat, they inspire deep animosity in their opponents.
But the Clintons also bring a hefty dose of intraparty intrigue to the stage tonight, born of years of speculation that Hillary Rodham Clinton, now the junior senator from New York, is angling for her own presidential run four or eight years from now.
The electoral fate of John Kerry, who is to accept the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday, and John Edwards, his chosen No. 2, could well affect that of the former first lady. So as she and her husband campaign for the team, insisting they want nothing more than to help Kerry and other Democrats win in November, they bring the inevitable buzz of conspiracy theories that cast them as ambitious figures waiting in the wings to reclaim the party's mantle.
The reality may lie somewhere in between.
Both Clintons have taken pains over the past several months not to upstage Kerry, and to show that their highest political aspiration is to help elect him president. The task has not been easy for two people whose outsized personalities and ambitions tend to grab the spotlight everywhere they go.
Some Democrats fretted openly this year that Bill Clinton, who is in the midst of a wildly successful book tour to promote his memoir, would outshine Kerry, making the less-charismatic Massachusetts senator appear dull by comparison. But far from distancing itself from Clinton, the Kerry campaign has encouraged nostalgia about his White House years and has drawn the former president into the race, inviting him to fund-raisers and other events.
Last week, Clinton headlined a fund-raiser in Coconut Grove, Fla., for Senate Democrats, which raked in $650,000. He was a prime attraction at a March dinner that raked in $11 million for Democrats. An e-mail solicitation from Clinton raised $2 million in one day for Kerry.
Kerry has also taken advantage of Hillary Clinton's formidable fund-raising power and support among Democrats. E-mail messages and letters from her have raised $2 million for Kerry, and she has collected at least $4 million for Democratic candidates, according to people familiar with the figures.
The day he announced that Edwards was his vice presidential pick, Kerry tapped Senator Clinton to appear in his stead at the National Education Association's annual convention in Washington, while he remained in Pittsburgh to dine with his new partner.
She drew cheers as she reminded a packed audience of teachers union members of "the good old days" of her husband's administration. Both Clintons will be making a similar pitch tonight, as they seek to convince voters that a Kerry administration would restore the peace and prosperity the country enjoyed when they were in the White House.
Eye on the future
But Hillary Clinton, 56, also has an eye on her own future. She and her aides say Clinton is focusing on being a good senator and an effective campaigner for Kerry and other Democrats, but lawmakers and party strategists acknowledge that she would be a Democratic presidential favorite if she were to run.
An Associated Press survey of this year's convention delegates found 26 percent would support Clinton as the 2008 party standardbearer if Kerry lost the election this year, while only 17 percent would favor Edwards.
Senator Clinton's appearance "says that, no matter what her aspirations might be, that she and Kerry are putting the need to replace [President] Bush first, and leaving future potential battles between the two of them at the door of the convention," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.
Democrats close to the Clintons say the former first lady's shrewdest move, if she is looking to her future, is to do what she has been doing: fulfilling her Senate role and enthusiastically leading cheers for Kerry.
"The best politics, if you're doing career-planning, is just to do a great job -- and she is doing a great job," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat who was a senior policy adviser to Bill Clinton.
Still, Hillary Clinton's chances of being a successful presidential candidate are closely intertwined with Kerry's. If Kerry wins, Clinton would see her chances of being the party's nominee in 2008 dashed; if he served a full two terms, many strategists believe that Edwards would emerge as the prohibitive favorite to succeed Kerry.
"If the [Kerry-Edwards] ticket doesn't win, then speculation will center around her," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist based in New York.
But if Democrats prevail Nov. 2, he said, "it would be very difficult for her to continue the energy of the Clinton era eight years down the road with a Democratic presidency. Clinton is relevant now because, after four years of Republicans, there's a real need for balance."
Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who lobbied Kerry to select Edwards, agreed. "If Kerry does win, it obviously sets up a chain of events that would make it much more difficult for [Clinton] to ever become a candidate," he said.
'A lot of pride'
Members of Senator Clinton's inner circle scoff at the notion that she is campaigning for Kerry and Edwards with an eye toward her next political move.
"Both Clintons are seen as representing a great eight-year presidency. There's a lot of pride in that. There's a lot of very, very strong feeling that they showed how it could be done," said Ann F. Lewis, who served as communications director to President Clinton and was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton during her 2000 Senate run.
The former first lady "is also seen as someone who went through the worst the right wing could throw at her, and didn't just survive, but triumphed," Lewis said.
Fears that Bill Clinton's book would steal Kerry's thunder have proven unfounded, Clinton's aides said. In fact, the Clintons this year canceled plans for a joint book-signing party today in Boston where the former president would sign his newly released My Life, and his wife would sign her best-seller of last year, Living History.
"Everything that they're doing, they're doing directly to be supportive of the ticket," said Steve Richetti, an aide to Bill Clinton. "They want to see Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards win, and that's where their energy has been."
There has been some friction as Democratic officials have tried to strike the right balance between using the Clintons' star power to boost Kerry's campaign and letting them become the main attraction during this week's party gathering.
Officials got a blunt reminder earlier this month that Hillary Clinton is not just another rank-and-file Democrat when they left her name off a list of people, including her husband, who would have prominent speaking roles at the convention. Women Democrats and New York party officials complained bitterly on Clinton's behalf, and Kerry soon was on the phone with her, asking her to introduce the former president in prime time -- an invitation she accepted.
Hillary Clinton will also participate in an event tonight with the Senate's nine Democratic women -- featuring a speech by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the dean of the group. And, as if to underscore that she knows her place in the Senate, Clinton will leave Boston briefly today to make a short stop in Manhattan, where she is to appear with Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the longest-serving and oldest senator, to promote his new book.
Some Democrats say the only way the Clintons will overshadow the Democratic ticket this week is if Kerry and Edwards allow them to.
"This convention is not about either of the Clintons; it is about the ability of the standard-bearers to articulate the case for the platform, and for themselves," said William A. Galston, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland who served as a senior adviser to Clinton. "If they do that well, nothing else matters -- and if they don't, nothing else matters."