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Bill Clinton, political magician

It’s morning again in Charlotte. President Obama plans to address the nation tonight.

But everyone’s thinking about the last Democratic president and what he said and how he said it last night.

Calling Bill Clinton’s speech masterful would be an understatement. It was a performance. It was a magic act, mesmerizing and magnetic. Republicans, who wrapped up their convention last week in Tampa, grudgingly admitted there has been no parallel speech this political season.

It might have been the best nominating speech at a political convention in modern times.

Replete with catchy one-liners and rhetorical tricks worthy of a skilled trial lawyer, this is the type of speech Abraham Lincoln might have given. Like Lincoln, Clinton was a lawyer and he made his speech an address to the jury of the American people. It was a case for Obama. And he made the case better for his client than his client probably will tonight.

Clinton argued and persuaded. He took up straw-man Republican positions. He knocked them down. He verbally indicted the GOP.

“You see, we believe that ‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’ It is,” Clinton said.

“So who’s right? Well, since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats, 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private sector jobs,” he said.

The crowd roared. Again. And Again.

Did Clinton B.S.? Probably. They fool people with their own senses. But this speech wasn’t simple, typical political manure. It was fertilizer for an Obama campaign that needs to rise above the mire of its picayune and petty fights with Mitt Romney’s campaign.

From job-creation statistics to Medicaid and Medicare policy to homespun Southernisms, Clinton rattled off so many facts and figures it was like drinking from a firehose. Sometimes he was a lawyer. Sometimes a preacher. Sometimes a lecturer. 

PolitiFact has a long day and night ahead of it. Before the speech even ended, Republicans sputtered on Twitter that Clinton surely misrepresented something in the nearly 50 minute speech that flew by.

"Bill Clinton gave a good speech last night that was typically Clinton — long, meandering, undisciplined, very funny, and made you like him even if you don't," said Erick Erickson, founder of the conservative Red State blog wrote.

"I’m not going to knock his speech. Yes, it was filled with factual errors. But this was a convention speech," Erickson wrote. "He played to the crowd and they were putty in his hands."

Still, Erickson said, by insisting things are better now than they were four years ago, Clinton hurt Obama's chances of persuading voters that the Democratic Party is in touch with the struggles of the average voter.

Obviously, Democrats disagree. And Clinton, citing job-growth numbers under Obama, showed them how.

Clinton is a demagogue to the right. A prophet to the left. What will the middle think? Is there still a middle in hyperpartisan times? Whether his speech makes Obama’s job easier is yet to be seen, but it firmly established Clinton as the intellectual and spiritual boss of the Democratic Party.

Frequently going off script, Clinton spoke off the cuff so often that the TelePrompter froze for minutes at a time. He flowed from one point to the next, rambling at times until he picked the script up again, only to put it down to deliver unscripted zingers.

Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, was on the receiving end of the best dart of the night when Clinton noted the congressman twice voted to go forward with the very Medicare reductions that Republicans are now bashing Obama for.

"It takes some brass for attacking a guy for doing what you do," Clinton said.

The crowd rose, elevated by mere words.

Part of the artistry and manipulation of the speech was that Clinton made it sound at times as if he were being nonpartisan at partisan rally. He gave shout outs to Republican presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. Bush actually seemed to get as much applause at the Democratic convention than he got last week at the Republican convention, where he was barely mentioned at all.

But this was a partisan speech. And like any good politician lawyer, he co-opted opponents’ one-liners, suggesting at one point that Republicans just couldn’t be believed.

“As another president once said, there they go again,” Clinton said, quoting Reagan.

Clinton enlisted the crowd as confidantes, conspirators. Despite being in a room of 20,000 people, he spoke as if he were in a small room of students. Class was in session.

A major lesson: Obama’s auto bailout that Romney opposed.

“There are now 250,000 more people working in the auto industry than on the day the companies were restructured,” Clinton said.

“We all know that Governor Romney opposed the plan to save GM and Chrysler,” Clinton said, interrupted by boos.

“So here’s another job score,” he said.

A giddy crowd laughed.

“Are you listening in Michigan and Ohio and across the country?” Clinton asked. “Here’s another job score: Obama, 250,000; Romney, zero.”

But he really didn’t say “zero.” It was dripping with an Arkansas lilt: “Zee-Row.”

Clinton mocked, pointing out that a Romney strategist said the Republican campaign is not going “be dictated by fact checkers.”

Clinton: "Finally, I can say, that is true. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Clinton clearly didn’t want to leave the stage. Perhaps Obama, backstage, didn’t either. At the close, the president joined the former president and hugged him and affectionately ran his hand on Clinton’s back. Obama owes Clinton, who once railed against candidate Obama in 2008 for spinning the press with a “fairy tale” of his candidacy.

On Wednesday, it was Clinton who spun the midsummer-night’s dream for Obama’s campaign. Will it have a real effect or dissipate like pixie dust? It's never clear with magic acts.

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