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, the newly designated frontrunner 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 said that Kerry had stood behind his efforts to slash the federal deficit.
Kerry vaulted into the Democratic frontrunner 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 talks 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 was not shy about discussing his ideas.
"We talked about what the Senate Democrats can do to be more focused in their communications strategy, and what was likely to happen in the coming year, and I gave them a few little ideas," Clinton told reporters.
"I don't know if they are any good," he added. "I'm a little out of it."
Since his presidency, which was shadowed by a sex scandal and his impeachment trial, Clinton has come to Capitol Hill several times. But this was his first business trip; his previous visits were to see his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior senator from New York. Sen. Clinton attended Thursday's session but declined to comment on it.
House Democrats have asked the former president to deliver the keynote address next Thursday at their strategy retreat at a Virginia resort. He is the only former elected official invited to attend a weekend meeting that will be largely devoted to hearing from pollsters and consultants, said Rep. Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"I don't think there is any question that he's the dominant Democratic politician of our generation," Matsui said.
"His political judgment is obviously very good, and I would think that as we figure out how to make the next election different from the last two, he's someone I would want to hear from," said Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood). "In addition to being a tremendously talented political leader, he is a talented political analyst."
But Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said Clinton's help was a mixed blessing for Democrats.
"There is no doubt he is the most powerful fundraiser they have, but he overshadows the candidates he campaigns for and he overshadows the Democratic field, and that's a problem," Iverson said.
Clinton has been criticizing President Bush's major policies since appearing with several of the Democratic hopefuls in September at an Iowa fundraiser. He has accused Bush of cutting taxes for the rich while letting deficits grow wildly. But Clinton also has chastised Democrats for dwelling too much on Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq.
"You know, everybody makes mistakes when they are president," Clinton said in July on the CNN program "Larry King Live." "I mean, you can't make as many calls as you have to make without messing up once in a while. The thing we ought to be focused on is what is the right thing to do now. That's what I think."
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.