NEW YORK — Hillary Rodham Clinton's not-so-secret weapon — her husband, Bill — is raising cash and enlisting support for his wife's presidential bid, focusing in part on keeping black Democrats from bolting to rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards.

The former president has mostly remained in the shadows as his wife has stepped into the spotlight of her groundbreaking campaign, defining herself for voters who largely remember her as first lady.

While she campaigned in New Hampshire last week, he took her place at a Westchester County Democratic Party breakfast not far from their suburban New York home. His only mention of her candidacy was a brief "Glad Hillary decided to throw her hat in the ring."

Behind the scenes, however, Clinton has phoned major donors and hosted small fund-raisers for business leaders and other backers. Next month, he will headline two major galas for her campaign in New York and Washington in which top donors are being asked to raise as much as $250,000 each.

The New York invitation announces "THE event of this quarter! ... The first Celebratory Dinner with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and President William Jefferson Clinton."

More important to Hillary Clinton is her husband's reputation as a hero in the black community — novelist Toni Morrison dubbed him "the first black president" in a 1998 essay. The New York senator will be fighting for support from a critical Democratic constituency against Obama, who is black, and Edwards, who has won praise from black leaders for his anti-poverty crusade.

The former president will take her place Sunday night at an annual gala in Albany, N.Y., honoring state black and Hispanic lawmakers. He also has reached out to black leaders in South Carolina, an early voting state in which blacks comprised 49 percent of the primary vote in 2004.

This week, Bill Clinton helped secure the backing of state Sens. Robert Ford and Darrell Jackson, who had supported Edwards in 2004. The Jackson endorsement was called into question after the Clinton campaign said it negotiated a $10,000 per month consulting contract with Jackson.

Not only is Bill Clinton considered one of the most savvy politicians in decades, he remains exceedingly popular. A Gallup poll released this week found that 63 percent of Americans view him favorably — near his peak of 66 percent in 1997, just before the sex scandal involving White House intern Monica Lewinsky was revealed.

But with voters still mulling the notion of yet another Clinton presidency — and mindful of the backlash that ensued during Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, when he described the Clinton partnership as "buy one, get one free" — the former president has so far deliberately ceded the spotlight.

"Bill Clinton is part of the campaign. You cannot look at one Clinton without really being aware of the other," said Bill Moore, a political scientist at South Carolina's College of Charleston. "It's uncharted territory, because you have a serious female candidate who's also the wife of a very divisive former president."

The Clinton touch isn't always golden.

John Matthews, another South Carolina state senator, said that while the former president had reached out to him, he's not ready to commit to a candidate.

"I think they all need to be tested a little bit, and show their capacity to sustain in early primaries," Matthews said. "I've got to listen to them all a little bit more."

Bill Clinton also has a day job.

He oversees a $100 million charitable foundation that bears his name and is scheduled to travel extensively through Africa this summer to promote the foundation's work combating AIDS. During the next two months, he's completing a book on citizen activism scheduled to be published early next year.

The former president's low public profile also reflects the practical need for his wife to establish an independent identity. On the campaign trail, advisers say she must go solo — proving to voters that she has the political skills honed over two Senate campaigns to win the race on her own.

But in New Hampshire last weekend, Mrs. Clinton warmly mentioned "Bill" at nearly every turn — from joking about his love for Dunkin' Donuts to recalling his decision as president in 1998 to bomb suspected weapons sites in Iraq. She described him as a "full-time political counselor" and promised voters they'd be seeing a lot more of him in the months to come.

Comment on this story

While analysts say Bill Clinton is indisputably an asset for his wife among most primary voters, his potential value as a general election surrogate is less clear. He's still a political lightning rod for conservatives, and the scandals that tainted his White House years — most notably the Lewinsky matter, which led to his impeachment in 1998 — remain troublesome for many voters.

"There is a lot of residual resentment among Republicans and conservatives against both Bill and Hillary Clinton, and his presence on the campaign trail would remind them of that. He would actually turn out Republicans and conservatives to vote against her in the general election," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at California's Claremont McKenna College.