Click photo to enlarge
Former president Bill Clinton and his wife, Democratic... (David Lienemann/Getty Images)
As she stepped onto the stage at the Wadsworth Theater in West Los Angeles last year, Hillary Rodham Clinton's chunky-heeled slipper seemed to catch on the flooring, and for just a moment there was a skip in her step.

The momentary hesitation also may have had something to do with the surprising boos that could be heard amid the cheers and applause as she was introduced to the predominantly Democratic audience gathered for a forum on global warming and America's energy future.

Clinton's chagrin peaked minutes later when she challenged the hecklers near the rear of the theater:

"Were you invited to speak here this afternoon?"

Although organizers quickly apologized for the rude welcome, the incident underscored a major hurdle facing Clinton as the country's first presidential primary is next week - the feeling among some Democratic activists that the former first lady's path back to the White House has been paved with political debts to big donors and large corporations.

"The Clintons call themselves progressives," said Sherman Oaks progressive activist Brad Parker, chairman of the Valley Democrats United political group, "but they're progressives in name only."

Or as Renee Leask, president of the Glendale Democratic Club, put it:

"I think the Clintons are well-intentioned. I don't think anyone is better-intentioned than Bill Clinton. But a friend of mine may have said it best when she said, `Bill and Hillary are good


'70s Republicans."'

Yet many also say that the very aspect of the Clintons that has brought on such enmity is likely what has brought Hillary Clinton so close to possibly becoming the first woman president.

Call it the selling of the presidency. Call it the compromise of a party traditionally beckoning America to egalitarian ideals. Or just call it what a lot of people in politics, Democrats and Republicans, are calling it: the phenomenon of Billary.

"Can she win without Bill? I would say no," said Marilyn Grunwald, chairwoman of the Sherman Oaks Democratic Club. "He is far more popular than she is."

In that, there seems to be little debate.

"If Hillary Clinton had her husband's charisma," said Los Angeles political consultant Bill Orozco, "the Democratic presidential nomination likely would already be hers, with the primary season simply a coronation."

But it is more than charisma that the former president brings to his wife's campaign.

"Bill Clinton is probably the greatest mind in American politics right now," said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University, Fullerton.

"The best thing about him is that he had a successful presidency. (Hillary's) running to succeed what is generally considered an unsuccessful presidency, and, without saying it, she can put for that, `We did a better job."'

As she approaches the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses Thursday, Hillary Clinton has a slight lead according to a Reuters-C-SPAN-Zogby poll released Monday, which showed Clinton at 30 percent among likely caucus-goers; Obama and Edwards each were at 26 percent. The margin of error is 3.3 percentage points, making it a dead heat.

Bill is playing a larger role in the Iowa campaign.

"(Bill Clinton) is a factor, there's no doubt about that, to a certain extent with those who are not on board to vote for Hillary and those who are not decided, and he gives a lot of credibility to his wife," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

The New York senator's presidential campaign declined to comment on Bill Clinton's campaign role, but in a previous interview, Hillary Clinton said that just as she played an integral part in her husband's presidency, he would play a major role in hers if she is elected.

"Obviously, for me, having my husband is a bigger net plus, for a couple of reasons," she said, adding that Bill Clinton has an "encyclopedic" knowledge of the economy and domestic and world politics, and would serve well in a private advisory role in the White House.

"She's not the politician he is," said Sonenshein, "but then she's not the (impulsive) politician he is either. I'll bet that between now and November 2008, he'll say two or three things that pop into his head that he thinks are important to share with us but which her campaign will wish he hadn't.

"On balance - and with Bill, it's always `on balance' - I think he does more good than harm," said Sonenshein. "But the thing is, he's unpredictable. You can't be sure if what he says will fit the plan."

Hillary Clinton's critics have long argued that she used the role of first lady to mount her successful 2000 U.S. Senate campaign, using much of the party machinery and fundraising operation put in place by her husband.

In 2000, a Hollywood gala for the outgoing president that drew such stars as Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Cher, Diana Ross and Muhammad Ali also was used for fundraising to aid Hillary Clinton's senate campaign.

But ultimately, that fundraiser led to criminal charges and convictions for several figures involved in the event, who allegedly bilked charities out of millions of dollars.

The Clintons have never been charged, but Democratic challengers to Mrs. Clinton and Republicans have been monitoring legal proceedings in several subsequent trials.

In her defense, the Clinton campaign points out that her top Democratic rivals, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, have their own fundraising problems that have stopped them from attacking hers.

And Bill Clinton also brings other negatives to his wife's campaign.

Party activists like Parker talk about the "Clinton Machine" and the "Clinton Dynasty" in the modern Democratic Party. And they cite the so-called New Democrats and the Democratic Leadership Council, a nonprofit within the party generally credited with reshaping it to more moderate positions.

Critics argue that the Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton headed in the two years he first campaigned for president, has supported candidates and positions sympathetic to corporate interests with deep pockets for campaign contributions.

"It has controlled the machine of the party in most cases," said Parker, a songwriter and producer long active in Democratic politics who at one time was an unofficial adviser to then-U.S. Sen. Al Gore.

"People who feel that Democratic officials have let people down don't understand that they have been seduced by the DLC and Bill Clinton to believe what big donors want you to do and not what's best for the people," he said.

Supporters of the Democratic Leadership Council maintain that it was the very traditional economic populism of the party that doomed such Democratic presidential candidates as George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984 and that Clinton himself owed his 1992 election to embracing the DLC philosophy.

Today, however, the DLC's close corporate ties are drawing attention to Hillary Clinton's campaign, especially among environmental, consumer and labor activists - like those who booed her at the global warming forum in Los Angeles.

But the reality of politics is that personality, style and charisma can outweigh or obscure issues and substance.

"Bill Clinton is one of the most famous people in the world today," said Sonenshein. "It's one thing for Obama to go out and get Oprah to campaign with him. But Hillary has Bill right there, and, on the whole, he's brilliant."