SOME are surprised by my defense of Bill Clinton. He's angry, but I think for good reason.

And the fact that I've said so has earned me a footnote in his retort to a hit piece just published about him in Vanity Fair.

The author of "The Comeback Id" is Todd Purdum (who's married to Dee Dee Myers, the ex-Clinton White House press secretary). Purdom spared no vitriol in going after Clinton:

"This winter, as Clinton moved with seeming abandon to stain his wife's presidential campaign in the name of saving it, as disclosures about his dubious associates piled up, as his refusal to disclose the names of donors to his presidential library and foundation and his and his wife's reluctance to release their income-tax returns created crippling and completely avoidable distractions for Hillary Clinton's own long-suffering ambition, I found myself asking again and again, What's the matter with him?"

Bill Clinton responded in kind. He told blogger Mayhill Fowler that Purdum was "sleazy," "dishonest," "slimy," a "scumbag."

His office also issued a 2,500-word rebuttal, which is what caused my BlackBerry to buzz with a Google alert.

The ex-president's office called the article the "journalism of personal destruction at its worst." It went on to defend Clinton's post-White House philanthropic efforts, to point out Vanity Fair's "penchant for libel" and to try to rebut the portrayal of the former president.

Where VF claimed Bill Clinton undercut his wife's campaign, there was this from his office:

"Independent observers continue to praise President Clinton's abilities on the stump: 'I have always said that Bill Clinton is still par excellence among all of them .' "

I said that in an appearance on "Race for the White House," a nightly show moderated by NBC News' chief White House correspondent, David Gregory.

It was the day on which Barack Obama had overcome Hillary Clinton in the superdelegate count, according to NBC's count. It was also the eve of the West Virginia primary, which Clinton would end up winning with a 41 percent cushion.

Gregory asked me about a ticket with Obama and Clinton - "Smerc, that's really the argument, right, for this unity ticket, is that he needs her, he can't win without her?"

I said, "Yes, but what do you do if you win with her? I mean, I have respect for her bona fides. She has really proven to be a fighter out on the stump. And I have always said that Bill Clinton is still par excellence among all of them.

"But what do you do the day after you're elected? You're going to continually be looking over your shoulder. I cannot see Barack Obama in any circumstances taking - and it's plural - the Clintons as running mates."

I was implying that Bill Clinton is such a dominant personality that he could overshadow a President Obama.

I still believe that Bill Clinton is an extraordinary campaigner mishandled by his wife's strategists, who capitulated in the face of an unrelenting media anxious to highlight any gaffes he made on the stump.

He was relegated to secondary media markets rather than put at the forefront of his wife's campaign - where he belonged. I'm convinced that when the next incarnation of Joe McGinniss writes "The Selling of the President, Version 2008," he'll start by recognizing that Hillary Clinton should have run as a twofer.

Instead, Bill Clinton was slid further onto the back burner with each passing "indiscretion."

Typical was his reference to either the Obama juggernaut or the Obama Iraq position (which he meant is subject to debate) as a "fairy tale." That was deemed out of bounds by the likes of Donna Brazile, who said that as a black female, she took umbrage at the remark. What his comment had to do with race I still don't understand.

Then he was criticized for drawing a comparison in South Carolina between the presidential bids of Obama and Jesse Jackson. Forget that he was factually correct - it spurred yet another round of comment discounting of his entire life as a supporter of civil rights.

Has he made mistakes on the stump? Of course. I still don't know why he put the issue of Bosnia sniper fire back into the news, but in the YouTube environment in which this race has been run, that's a blip.

I feel the same about when he was caught on tape before not quite hanging up the phone with National Public Radio saying, "I don't think I should take any any s--- from anybody on that, do you?"

Who could blame him?

HOW frustrating it must have been to watch the free ride Obama got from the media for the bulk of the campaign. (Anyone who disputes that needs to answer for the many months it took the mainstream media to discover Jeremiah Wright long after Sean Hannity put his image on Fox News.)

Imagine how difficult that must have been for the most investigated president in history, the man has had more speculation raised about every aspect of his life than any politician anytime, anywhere. *

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.