WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's first working visit on Capitol Hill with Democratic senators since the end of his presidency three years ago was supposed to be a low-key, off-the-record affair.
But Clinton, looking fit and energized, seized the opportunity to praise Sen. John F. Kerry, newly designated front-runner for the party's presidential nomination, and to tell reporters what he thought Democrats needed to do to win the election this year.
Emerging from a lengthy strategy session, Clinton, who is considered a centrist, leaped to Kerry's defense when a reporter asked whether the senator from Massachusetts was a "little too liberal" to be elected.
"I don't think it's fair to say he can't be elected, or that he's too far to the left," Clinton said. He noted that Kerry had stood behind his efforts to slash the federal deficit.
Kerry vaulted into the Democratic front-runner position after winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Clinton has not endorsed any of the candidates, and he declined to predict who might win the Democratic nomination.
"I still think we have a good field," he said. "And by the way, you may know what's going to happen, but I don't."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who had asked Clinton to address the strategy session, stood silently beside him as he spoke. Senators said the discussions were private, and many declined to comment on them.
Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, one of the few willing to speak on the record, said Clinton "emphasized projecting an image of strength on national security, a willingness to defend the country in a better, more intelligent way than the current administration. He said he thought we could win on the economy and healthcare, and by putting a human face on the deficit."
Clinton has been criticizing President Bush's major policies since appearing with several of the Democratic presidential candidates in September at an Iowa fundraiser.
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