Democrats Clamor for Clinton

Posted June 11, 2010 at 5:27pm

The prospect of campaigning with President Barack Obama this cycle is enough to make any number of Democratic incumbents salivate. But many would much prefer the attention of a former White House occupant: Bill Clinton.

Even at this early stage in the campaign season, Obama is already dispatching Clinton into some of the roughest electoral territory in the country. And the good news keeps rolling in.

The former president helped to bring out nearly 700 Democrats to cheer on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) at a rally Thursday. And some say he may have single-handedly saved Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) from a bruising primary defeat last week; she relied heavily on ads that Clinton — a former Arkansas governor — cut for her in the final days of her campaign.

And this is just the beginning.

“He’s always been an asset. … He attracts big crowds, he works tirelessly and he’s a great fundraiser for people. You’re going to see him used as a surrogate and a fundraiser throughout this cycle,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “His numbers are really good. Especially for some of our Southern clients, we’ve been putting him [into polling] as a possible Democrat to come down.”

Clinton is likely to be more appealing to Democrats than Obama would be for a number of reasons, one longtime Democratic media consultant said. For starters, Clinton, a centrist Southerner, has more flexibility to campaign in different regions of the country than the current president.

Additionally, “You can always count on Bill Clinton to not only excite the base but to make a very pointed and rational economic argument. Voters think we got it absolutely right in the 1990s, economically, when he was president,” said the media consultant.

“He’s a rock star,” said New York Rep. Joe Crowley, vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“I’m not surprised at all” that so many Democrats want to be tied to him in 2010, Crowley said. He speculated that Clinton’s staying power is due in part to people’s “nostalgia” for times of prosperity during his time in the White House, and in part to him being a former president, which means he enjoys “a disconnect from the issues at hand.”

Southern Democrats in conservative districts resoundingly agreed that Clinton enjoys widespread popularity in their part of the country — more so than former Illinois Sen. Obama — and many said he is uniquely positioned to make or break a candidate’s race.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who earlier this month lost the primary for his state’s governorship, said Clinton would have been the first person he would have called had he won.

“In my state, the only national Democrat you can bring in to campaign is Bill Clinton,” Davis said. “He’s probably the most popular national Democrat we’ve got.”

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who is immersed in a heated bid to unseat Republican Sen. David Vitter, said Clinton carried his district in both the 1992 and 1996 presidential races and is “still very well-liked,” despite a number of conservatives in his district.

Clinton tends to “play better” in the South than Obama, who “didn’t fare very well” in the Republican-leaning region during the 2008 elections, Melancon said. He hedged on saying whether it would be wise for conservative Democrats in tight races to try to lean on Clinton for a boost, saying each individual district has its own political situation.

Still, he added, “But if there was an ask, I think Bill Clinton would be a better ask.”

Even Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.), whom Clinton privately — and unsuccessfully — lobbied earlier this year to drop his Democratic primary challenge against Sen. Arlen Specter, said he would be “honored” to have Clinton backing him in the general election against former Rep. Pat Toomey (R).

“Clinton stayed completely neutral in the race,” Sestak said, referring to Clinton not making an official endorsement in the primary. “And if he did, people take sides, you move on.”

But not all Southern Democrats are looking to bring the former president’s star power back to their districts this year. Rep. Rick Boucher, who represents the southwestern region of Virginia, said he had “no idea” if a Clinton visit would help his re-election campaign.

“My success is based on the merits of my campaign, not the popularity of others,” Boucher said. “Am I glad he’s doing it? Yes, if it helps.”

And some Members warned that Clinton’s popularity can also be used in a way that hurts the party. One Southern Democrat grumbled about Obama sending in Clinton to help Lincoln when she “did everything she could to block health care,” Obama’s signature issue.

“Obama pulled out the big gun in the end. A pistol. That pistol should not have been available,” the lawmaker said. “I would have preferred she was out. Let the chips fall where they may.”

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said it would have to be Clinton, and not Obama, to come stump for anyone in his home state since people are not supportive of Obama’s stance on the coal industry.

“The EPA is probably the most hated three letters in West Virginia right now,” Rahall said. “People associate Obama with the EPA so he would not be well-received right now.”

By contrast, West Virginia Democrats view Clinton as one of them, he said. “He’s a Southerner,” Rahall said. “He gets down to the nitty-gritty, asking the personal questions that show a concern and care.”

Brad Todd, a Republican media consultant and former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, said Clinton still may have some appeal, but it won’t be enough to shield Democrats from a backlash over their votes in favor of Obama’s agenda.

Clinton “will raise them some money in Southern districts. He’ll cost them a few votes. And by showing up, he will highlight the Democrats’ embarrassment of their own president,” Todd said.

He said the reality is that Democratic lawmakers won’t be able to escape the fact that they have been supporting “a radical Obama agenda … just because they bring in a surrogate who says, ‘Y’all.”