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How Long Clinton's Coattails?

President stumps and raises big money for Democrats. His goal: help them retake House.

Pity poor Bill Clinton, the consummate politician who's run out of offices to campaign for.

But as the parties rev their engines for the fall midterm elections, the president has discovered the second-best summer pastime - campaigning for other candidates.

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In speech after speech, in fact, President Clinton has made clear he's set his sights on the most attainable goal the Democratic Party has this November: to buck the historical tide and win congressional seats. And if a lot of breaks go the Democrats' way, they even have a shot at retaking control of the House of Representatives, which the Republicans run by only an 11-seat margin.

The question is, does the popular Mr. Clinton have any coattails?

At the very least, he's a proven financial rainmaker. Like a man on a mission, he's crisscrossed the country, inspiring the party faithful to pull out their checkbooks. Along the way, he's helped the Democratic National Committee cut its debt from $15 million to below $5 million and provided candidates with cash to battle the GOP.

Just as important, he's motivating and activating the party's core supporters, which is crucial at a time when peace and prosperity have left many voters complacent and pundits predicting record-low turnouts.

"Obviously, an important part of this election year is getting your voters to the polls, creating a sense of excitement, a sense of enthusiasm, motivating the base," says Democratic consultant Mark Melman. "A presidential visit can do that exceedingly well."

A presidential visit also gives a candidate a big megaphone to get his or her message out. The press and the public take a candidate more seriously when the president's on the podium, too. And this president in particular, who's a master communicator, can probably articulate a candidate's message better than the candidate can.

Time to vote

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In a literal sense, voters aren't going to go to the polls and "vote for Candidate X because Bill Clinton told [us] to," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. "I don't know that he has that level of pull. But he certainly generates a lot of excitement and reminds people, oh yeah, time to go vote."

From the perspective of many Democratic candidates - though certainly not all - there's little risk in a public appearance with Clinton, despite all his legal problems and less-than-sterling character image. Clinton's job-approval rating remains strong, and is even at record highs in some Southern states, like Texas and Virginia.

But what if Clinton comes in for an appearance with a Democratic candidate, then some devastating revelation emerges in the investigation over his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky? The worst that will happen is a Republican candidate will run ads showing pictures of Clinton and the Democrat on stage together.

"But Democratic candidates across the country probably already have a picture of themselves with Clinton," says Mr. Melman. "So one more isn't going to make a difference."

Certainly, Clinton isn't meeting the kind of chilly reaction to proposed campaign visits that he found four years ago, when he was fresh from his defeat on health- care reform and his popularity was in the gutter.

Now the problem is finding time in the president's schedule to accommodate all the requests for campaign appearances, especially as he continues to add foreign trips to his agenda. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Gore, and Tipper Gore are also being deployed on candidates' behalf.

Clinton is finding he's welcome even in places that may have been questionable earlier - such as North Carolina, to support Senate candidate John Edwards, and Georgia, for Senate hopeful Michael Coles. Kentucky Senate candidate Scotty Baesler has also just signed up for a Clinton visit.

Still, many pundits agree Clinton probably should steer clear of Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, all states that are very conservative on social issues. Ms. Duffy, of the Cook report, adds Nebraska and Kansas to the list.

In many races, the internal dynamic is so strong that a Clinton visit probably couldn't sway the outcome either way. Political analyst Del Ali puts the New York Senate contest - which will pit Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) and likely challenger Geraldine Ferraro - in that category. In that race, Senator D'Amato has gained momentum and Ms. Ferraro has been stumbling.

"The place where Clinton's going to help is with incumbent Democrats," says Mr. Ali, a vice president at Mason-Dixon Research.

And there are a lot of incumbent Democratic seats to protect: This year 15 sitting Democratic senators are running for reelection, compared with 15 open Democratic seats in 1996.

Helping candidates

Gubernatorial hopefuls are also logging their requests for a Clinton visit. Mike Freeman, who's battling two well-known opponents for the Democratic nomination for Minnesota's governorship, says he's already asked Clinton to come in after the September primary.

Clinton's legendary ability to woo people - party regulars as well as the skeptical - is a big attraction, Mr. Freeman says.

"When he looks you in the eye and gives you 'the look,' it's pretty impressive," he says.

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