Hillary Clinton's Popularity on the Campaign Trail

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Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) is widely seen as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination two years from now. But many Democrats running for office in the midterm elections this November see her as a controversial figure and don't want her joining them on the campaign trail.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Hillary Clinton - love her, hate her. That's the tagline on the cover of this week's Time magazine.

Polls confirm that almost every American has a strong opinion about Hillary. But our Mike Pesca says hold on a second. Before we talk about the presidential race of 2008, let's talk about the impact Hillary is having on the congressional elections this year.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Last week Hillary Clinton unveiled her first official ad for her Senate campaign.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): New Yorkers took a chance on me in 2000 and I have worked hard every single day to deserve that chance.

PESCA: It's a race where all the drama is self generated, because Team Clinton has implied that how Hillary does in rural New York is an indication of her appeal in other rural areas across the country.

Of course in a presidential election she may be running against a guy like John McCain, who everyone knows. And in New York she may be running against a guy named John Spencer, who almost no one knows.

In fact, Hillary's own race is perhaps the least competitive one she's appearing in. She's been stumping and fundraising for candidates across the country. But she doesn't have the kind of open invitation that's been extended to a couple of the higher profile Republicans.

Jennifer Duffy is an analyst with the Cook Political Report.

Ms. JENNIFER DUFFY (Cook Political Report): John McCain can go almost anywhere in the country and raise money. Interestingly enough Rudy Giuliani, can go anywhere in the country and raise money, because he gets to go as a 9/11 hero and not the very, very moderate Republican that he is.

PESCA: Mrs. Clinton certainly gets crowds going, just not in places with multiple country music stations on the radio.

Mr. DAN GERSTEIN (Democratic Political Consultant): In very blue states she is a rock star. There's no question about it.

PESCA: New York-based Democratic political consultant Dan Gerstein says Senator Clinton has regional appeal.

Mr. GURSTEIN: I don't think that Mrs. Clinton is going to play as well in Tennessee as probably she's going to play in California or New York.

PESCA: Senator Clinton has campaigned heavily in some states like Ohio and Pennsylvania where the vote was tight in the last presidential election. But in others she's fundraised from afar.

Ann Lewis is the communication director for Senator Clinton's campaign.

Ms. ANN LEWIS (Communication Director, Hillary Clinton Campaign): For example, she did an event for Sherrod Brown. She has made a maximum contribution to him. And she also went to Ohio on June 24th to do events for him there.

For Bob Casey she has headlined two events, one in Chicago and one in Philadelphia. For Harold Ford she hosted an event at her home here in Washington.

PESCA: Has she been in to Tennessee on behalf of Harold Ford?

Ms. LEWIS: No. She's done it in Washington, as she has with a number of other candidates. It sort of depends on the candidate.

PESCA: Depending on the Republican candidate, Hillary Clinton often does become a factor in the race, but as a rhetorical punching bag. Take Nebraska, where Republican Pete Ricketts is challenging Democratic Senator Ben Nelson.

Mr. PETE RICKETTS (Senate Candidate): I'm Pete Ricketts. I approve this message because I'll vote to cut your taxes. As the Clinton/Kennedy Democrats control the Senate, they promise to raise your taxes. Together we can stop them.

PESCA: And at least one Democrat has told Senator Clinton to stay away, says the Cook Political Report's Jennifer Duffy.

Ms. DUFFY: Missouri is interesting because the Democratic Senate candidate has suggested that she didn't think that having Clinton in the state to raise money for her would be helpful.

PESCA: Hillary Clinton can raise a lot of money for a candidate. But in some states she also raises problems. That fact is undeniably an indication of her chances of appealing to a national audience.

But it's far from a definitive referendum. Some Republicans are finding the specter of Hillary Clinton a useful boogeyman in 2006. That has little to do with an actual Hillary Clinton running for president in 2008.

One election at a time every, good candidate will say. But raising money, stumping when requested, and staying away when asked all add up to chits to be collected down the road.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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