Ex-Clintonites crowd ballots across US
Bill Clinton's political career may be over, but his administration is showing signs of coming back to life.
This year, no fewer than 12 former Clinton officials are campaigning in congressional and statehouse races across the US a number analysts say may be unprecedented for a previous administration. Some of the biggest names on the ballot include Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. Even Tipper Gore, the former second lady, is considering a run for the Senate.
On Tuesday, Illinois Democrats will get the chance to pick between two other Clintonites White House aide Rahm Emanuel and Transportation appointee Pete Dagher both of whom are running in a crowded primary field in the state's Fifth Congressional District. It will be the first of many tests of how Mr. Clinton's legacy is faring more than a year after he left office. The candidates are all betting that the administration's policies and the economy it presided over will resonate more with voters than the president's personal failings. But the degree to which they emphasize ties to their former boss seems to vary from race to race.
Mr. Emanuel, running in a solidly Democratic district, has had Clinton campaign for him. Mr. Bowles, running for Senate in North Carolina, has barely mentioned him and in his first political ad, depicted himself working not with the former president but with Senate minority leader Trent Lott.
"My work for President Clinton has been a positive thing in this race, from everything that I can see," says Bill Curry, a former counselor to the president, who is now running for governor of Connecticut. Still, he admits, "Has anyone ever asked me about Monica Lewinsky? Well, yeah."
In many ways, of course, it's the same challenge that former Vice President Al Gore faced, trying to hit the right balance between embracing Clinton's achievements and distancing him personally.
But while Mr. Gore had to find a political mix that would work for the country as a whole perhaps an impossible task these candidates only have to find the right approach for their individual states.
Moreover, some argue, the Clinton scandals have greatly receded in importance among voters since Sept. 11. They may live on in tabloid television (witness Paula Jones's recent appearance on FOX's "Celebrity Boxing"), but they are largely removed from the nation's mainstream political discourse. Even the release last week of the independent counsel's final report drew little attention.
"Every day that goes by, Clinton's balanced budget and robust economy mean a little more, and his personal affairs mean a little less," says Mr. Curry.
A few of these candidates have their own political record to run on such as Mr. Richardson, whose long career as a congressman has given him a strong advantage in his campaign for governor of New Mexico.
But many would probably not be running at all were it not for their stint in the administration and the name recognition and connections they gained there.
Certainly, candidates like Emanuel, who is facing a stiff challenge from former state Rep. Nancy Kaszak in Tuesday's primary, has benefited from his ties to Clinton.
"In terms of fundraising, in terms of stature, it's critical that he was in the administration," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "If this was just some guy named Rahm Emanuel running against Nancy Kaszak, it wouldn't even be a race she'd clobber him."
Indeed, analysts agree that, with the possible exception of Bowles, most of these candidates are likely to find their association with Clinton to be a positive, rather than a negative factor.
In Massachusetts, Mr. Reich, who will have to win a competitive Democratic primary in his quest for the governor's seat, has by some accounts actually been exaggerating his closeness to his former boss (the two have been on less-than-friendly terms since Reich left the administration and took to criticizing Clinton's centrist policies).
In fact, Clinton made a campaign appearance in the state last week on behalf of Steve Grossman, a former Democratic National Committee chair, who is running against Reich for the party's nomination.
Even in states that are less strongly Democratic, such as Florida, the Clinton factor could be helpful, say analysts. For one thing, Ms. Reno, running for governor, is so closely associated with the administration in voters' minds that it would be pointless for her to try to distance herself from it, anyway.
But more important, says Mr. Rothenberg, Reno's strategy for winning both the primary and the general election against Republican Gov. Jeb Bush relies on "a big, big core Democratic turnout an African-American turnout."
Clinton's continuing popularity among black voters could be a critical advantage there. This could even prove true for Bowles particularly if he ends up in a competitive primary battle against state Rep. Dan Blue, who is African-American.
"There is a myth that North Carolina is particularly hostile to Clinton, and it isn't true," says Ted Arrington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
"Democrats in general don't dislike Clinton, and African-Americans, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, like Clinton a whole lot."
If Bowles does find himself running in a competitive primary, says Professor Arrington, "he may very well pull Clinton out as his ace in the hole." Still, he says, for now Bowles is resisting calling on Clinton, since he's polling well ahead of his Democratic competitors, and "it wouldn't be all that helpful in getting the independent vote in November."