On the comeback trail with help from the Clintons

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Story highlights

  • Former Rep. Marjorie Margolies lost her seat 20 years ago after backing Bill Clinton on budget
  • Chelsea Clinton is her daughter-in-law, so she has a unique link to the former first family
  • And Bill and Hillary are working to help her out in her political comeback bid
  • But there's a fine line in gauging how much of the Clintons is enough in a political campaign

It's a large district in and around Philadelphia. It's not a swing seat; it's a safe Democratic stronghold—not a nailbiter. But in this midterm election, the 13th Congressional District race has attracted some national attention and some rock star fundraisers: Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Why such attention and star power? Because the candidate is Marjorie Margolies: related by marriage to the Clintons and tied to the former President by history.

Margolies first gained national attention 20 years ago. She lost her seat as a freshman House member after voting for Bill Clinton's 1993 signature economic plan. It was about to go down after multiple Democratic defections. He needed one vote; she was it.

"I don't regret my vote," she said at the time. "Nor do I apologize for it." Clinton remained in her considerable debt.

Neither she nor the President could have known then that they would be bound in another way: Her son, Marc, married Chelsea Clinton, who is now expecting their first child. And while the Clintons have raised money for her campaign, they're not exactly campaign regulars.

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    "We always knew that if they came in too much we would be blamed for their coming in too much. If they don't come in enough, then people would say they didn't come in enough. You're kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't," Margolies told CNN. "They have done everything we've asked them to do, and I am running on what I have accomplished in the last 20 years and not on my affiliation with the Clintons."

    But that's hardly something she can, or really wants to, escape. A campaign ad using Bill Clinton's appearance on her behalf went up on the air Wednesday with him saying "If you send Marjorie to Congress she will make you proud ... and this district will be well-served if you elect her."

    Hillary Clinton is headlining a fundraiser in New York City for her Thursday evening. And her vote to pass Clinton's economic plan back in the day is a subject she does not shy away from as he campaigns in her old district that was once largely Republican, but is now largely Democratic.

    Predictably, she's come under some criticism about how her campaign has used the Clintons.

    One of her opponents, Daylin Leach, released an ad featuring some of Bill Clinton's remarks touting Margolies. Then Leach's daughter comes on the screen saying "While some cling to the past, we just can't go backwards."

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    The campaign hopes the Clintons can gave Margolies a last minute boost in fundraising and turnout. "I want to get one thing out of the way. I would be here if her son wasn't my son-in-law," President Clinton said at a campaign event for Margolies last month. "I'm not saying vote for her because 20 years ago she saved the economy."

    She also saved the Clinton presidency, according to a top former aide, Paul Begala—and knowingly lost her job. "I'm quite sure he knew that that was a political death knell for somebody who had just won by the narrowest of margins. And he was very impressed by that," Begala said of the President's reaction.

    Margolies remembers the day of that vote in August of 1993. "The Republicans were high fiving, saying it's going down," Margolies recounted in the interview. "A lot of Democrats were talking about changing their vote."

    The President called her. "He said what would it take?" she recalled. "I said I will only be your last vote. I know how important it is."

    That point was not lost on the President. Clinton and senior White House staff huddled around a small television in an office just off the Oval Office. They watched Margolies walk the plank.

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    "Republicans stood there and taunted her and said 'bye bye Marjorie," said Begala. They were right. Her deciding vote may have saved Clinton, but she would end up losing her seat the next year.

    In the book of isn't-this-a-small-world, Margolies is now part of the extended Clinton family. In fact, she and the Clintons are preparing to be co-grandparents. But as voluble as she is on politics, she's just as silent when it comes to the Clintons. When asked about family matters, she becomes downright monosyllabic.

    When asked if she has anything to say about her and Hillary Clinton being co-grandmothers she responded "no." Asked if she and the Clintons are friends she said "It's an area that I will not get into," adding: "They are lovely. The Clintons couldn't be any nicer."

    And when asked what it was like for her son to marry into such a political dynasty, Margolies told CNN "It's surprisingly normal."

    That depends on how you define normal.

    As for the race itself, Margolies has a fight on her hands. She's locked in a tight four-way Democratic primary despite being the early frontrunner. The district is now solidly Democratic and runs from the affluent suburbs into the blue-collar area of North Philadelphia.

    She campaigns as an advocate for abortion rights and boosting the middle class. She has been attacked by opponents for misusing campaign funds which she denies. She also got hit for not campaigning aggressively in the early days. She has ramped up her schedule and participated in more debates.

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