NEW HAVEN — Former President Bill Clinton returned to the Elm City on Tuesday to fire up the Democratic troops and raise money to help the tight re-election campaign of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy against Republican Tom Foley.
During his three years at Yale Law School in the early 1970s, Clinton worked on campaigns and honed his taste for politics. Clinton told the crowd that he met Hillary Rodham in New Haven 43 years ago, and they have been married for nearly 39 years. "It all started here,'' Clinton said, reflecting on his past. "I love Connecticut. You've been good to me in personal and political ways.''
Clinton then pivoted and told the party faithful they need to hit the streets and the telephones to spread the word for Malloy's campaign against Foley.
"I'm going to give an unconventional political speech because I'm preaching to the saved,'' Clinton said to the hard-core volunteers, adding that pollsters expect November's election turnout will be lower than during a presidential year.
He added: "Your job is to go out there and talk to people who are not in this room. You've got to decide. You do. … In some ways this election is even more important than the last one.''
Clinton's appearance generated a crowd of party activists, including members of the state's congressional delegation and former state AFL-CIO President John Olsen, the former state party chairman.
Aside from President Barack Obama, Clinton is the Democratic Party's biggest star and a guaranteed fundraiser known for drawing large crowds to events.
Devon Puglia, a Democratic Party spokesman, said "several hundred'' arrived at the $50-per-person rally in a truncated ballroom on the second floor of the Omni Hotel.
"We've had to turn people away,'' Puglia said, adding that Clinton had not planned any other higher-priced fundraisers Tuesday for the state Democratic Party.
After campaigning earlier at a small bakery with Malloy, Clinton told the crowd to rally around the Democratic governor.
"Based on what he has done, he should be re-elected by 10 points or more — going away,'' Clinton said. "He has proved he is a true leader.''
Clinton said that Malloy raised taxes on the rich in order to close the state budget deficit. At the same time, taxes were reduced on the poor because the state adopted the earned income tax credit, which sends refund checks to those who do not owe taxes. And he praised Malloy for raising the minimum wage.
Referring to the gun control law that Connecticut passed after the Newtown tragedy, Clinton said that he was the last president to pass substantial gun control laws.
"We passed the Brady Bill and the assault weapon ban … and the blood was on the floor,'' Clinton said. "This is crazy. You've got to have universal background checks.''
He added that Republicans "talk tough, but they govern soft. They tell voters you can eat all the candy you want, and you will never have to go to the dentist.''
Malloy is locked in a tight battle with Foley in a rematch of their 2010 race that was the closest gubernatorial election in Connecticut in more than 50 years.
Malloy told the crowd that Foley is not a proven job creator, based on his track record of running a holding company that oversaw a textile company known as Bibb.
"Go no further than Bibb,'' Malloy said. "He is not a job creator.''
After Clinton left the ballroom, Malloy talked to reporters briefly and said the former president's visit — coming early in the campaign season — gives his re-election effort a big boost. Clinton's visit in 2010 came just days before the election, but this year, the former president stumped right after Labor Day, the unofficial kickoff for the campaign season.
"You couldn't come out of a Labor Day better than we came out today," Malloy said.
Foley campaign spokesman Chris Cooper later said: "It's great to have a former president visit our state — and it's good for Connecticut. It also shows how desperate Dan Malloy is to bring in people he thinks can help him save his campaign, which has been plagued by his record-breaking tax increase in 2011 and his failed polices, which have stalled economic growth, resulting in Connecticut having one of the worst job recovery rates in the nation."
Quinnipiac University political science professor Scott McLean, who attended the rally, said Clinton's visit was similar to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's visit in July for Foley.
"Both Clinton and Christie are in our state not only to raise cash, but also to give much-needed charisma transplants to the gubernatorial candidates," McLean said. "Polls show voters just aren't enthusiastic for either Foley or Malloy."
'A Dream Come True'
"This is a dream come true,'' said Joe Young, 21, a student at Manchester Community College who is a member of the Manchester Democratic Town Committee. He said he never expected to get a spot in the front row.
"I saw Obama at CCSU,'' Young said, referring to the president's trip to the New Britain campus in March. "I was almost in the front row.''
Asked about the drive to New Haven to see Clinton, Young said: "He's my favorite person in the whole world — besides my mom and people like that. He's the reason I'm involved in politics. I hope his wife wins, too. She'll win if she runs."
Former state Rep. Alex Knopp of Norwalk, a veteran politician who served for 15 years in the state legislature, has attended numerous fundraisers and said he wanted to see Clinton once again.
"Bill Clinton and I are the same age,'' Knopp said as he sat along the wall in the ballroom. "He came to Connecticut in 1991, and I endorsed him. I got to have dinner with him in 1991.''
Clinton was a relatively obscure politician back then, as he was starting out in his quest against then-President George H.W. Bush. But Clinton defeated Bush in 1992 in a three-way race with Texas activist Ross Perot, and the rest is history. Knopp closely watched Clinton's eight years as president and then he switched from the legislature into an executive position in his hometown.
"His performance as president prompted me to run for mayor of Norwalk in 2001,'' said Knopp, who is now teaching at Yale Law School as a visiting clinical lecturer.
Courant staff writer Daniela Altimari contributed to this story.