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Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
US mid-terms: Crazy like a fox?
The BBC's Richard Allen Greene in Washington writes his weekly diary highlighting key issues in the US mid-term elections.

It is just over a month until US voters decide who will control Congress for the next two years, and Washington is in full-scale election frenzy.

Former US President Bill Clinton (R) and Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace
Mr Clinton's angry finger-wagging may have been tactical
Lawmakers are closing up shop as of Friday to devote themselves full-time to campaigning - rather than making laws - and both parties have pulled out their heaviest guns for the final showdown between Republicans and Democrats during George W Bush's presidency.

On the Republican side, it is of course the president himself who is top gun.

He has had to tread carefully, since his personal popularity is very low (though rising as petrol prices fall, USA Today newspaper observed last week).

Many candidates are reluctant to appear with an unpopular president's arm around their shoulders, but even Republicans who do not want to be seen in public with the president do want him setting the terms of debate.

That is something he and his campaign strategists do extraordinarily well, as Republican victories in the last three elections have shown.

Mr Bush and his allies say Republicans are committed to protecting Americans, imply that the Democrats are not, and they win.

'Apparent meltdown'

But this week the Democrats may have whipped out a concealed weapon of their own.

Bill Clinton in 1998 making a statement of contrition before the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him

His name is Bill Clinton, and nearly two decades ago he was hailed as the most gifted natural politician of his generation.

He went on to become the unsinkable president of the 1990s, his own personal popularity weathering political setbacks and a sex scandal that ended in an impeachment trial.

So what was he doing earlier this week, all but grabbing an interviewer by the scruff of the neck and shaking him on the conservative Fox News network's flagship Sunday morning show?

He turned in a moment from an affable elder statesman extolling the advantages of being a former president to an attack dog blasting everything from a journalist's question to the expression on his face.

The question that set him off - one which journalist Chris Wallace was careful to say his viewers wanted him to ask - was why Mr Clinton did not do more as president to put Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda "out of business".

Mr Clinton dived in to respond to the question even before Mr Wallace had finished it, spraying fire at "conservative Republicans", "President Bush's neo-cons", and Fox News itself.

He admitted failing to kill Bin Laden, but, he said: "At least I tried" - the implication being that George Bush had not even done that.

Mr Wallace seemed stunned by the vehemence of the response, and the press was quickly full of comment on Mr Clinton's apparent "meltdown".

'An old tactic'

And like the kind of scuffle between players on a sports field that turns into a free-for-all between two teams, Mr Clinton's response to what he called a "conservative hit job" cleared the benches.

Hillary Clinton announces her candidacy for the US Senate on 6 February 2000
Hillary, who has her own campaigns to think about, came to her husband's defence
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House spokesman Tony Snow intervened on behalf of Mr Bush the following day, while Hillary Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defended Mr Clinton later in the week.

That bench-clearing may have been exactly what Mr Clinton wanted.

He is no longer president, and cannot set the terms of debate the way Mr Bush can.

But as he implied later in his Fox interview, Democrats could respond better than they do to attacks on their patriotism and machismo.

His closing words to Fox were about the Republicans and the Democrats: "Their job is to beat us. But our job is not to let them get away with it. And if they don't, then we'll do fine."

His angry finger-wagging may have been genuine. He is known to have a hot temper.

But it may also have been tactical - attack is as they say the best form of defence.

He credited the Republicans with running the same successful political play over and over again. With his outburst on Sunday, he may well have been dusting off an old tactic of his own.

If it works in 2006, expect to see it again in 2008 - when Hillary is running for president.




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