How First Spouses Influence Elections

Whitewater laps at door of the White House

Hillary Rodham Clinton is breaking the first lady mold in more ways than one.

She's a high-powered lawyer who's more openly interested in policy than her predecessors were - and she may be the first presidential spouse whose legal troubles could sway votes.

The Senate Whitewater Committee report June 18 assailed President Clinton's wife for her role in an Arkansas land deal.

Typically, presidential candidates' wives have not influenced the outcome of an election. But that paradigm may be shifting. Even if Elizabeth Dole, who is viewed positively by the public as president of the American Red Cross (now on leave) and as former head of two cabinet departments, does not do much to boost Bob Dole's chances in November, Mrs. Clinton could be a drag on her husband.

"I'm not so sure Elizabeth Dole helps Bob Dole as much as Hillary Clinton hurts Bill Clinton," says James Rosebush, former chief of staff to Mrs. Reagan and author of a book on first ladies.

History has shown that the public is more comfortable with a first lady who occupies a spot in the background. Polls have also shown through the years that even the most popular of candidates' wives (see Barbara Bush) appear able to do little to save their husbands' flagging presidential hopes. Unpopular wives also typically don't hurt very much (see Nancy Reagan) - at least until now.

Despite her formidable resume, Mrs. Dole has played a fairly traditional role as a candidate's wife, and has avoided calling undue attention to herself. When the Toledo Blade recently proposed that she debate Mrs. Clinton on "the changing role of the first lady," Mrs. Dole declined.

She preferred to "leave the debating to the candidates," she told the Ohio newspaper.

By laying low, Mrs. Dole has also managed so far to keep her own professional and financial dealings somewhat quiet. There has been some coverage of her role at the Red Cross - and of the likely conflicts of interest she would face if her husband won the presidency and she returned to lead the Red Cross, as she has said she would do. The Red Cross deals constantly with federal agencies the president controls.

In January, an article in The New Yorker delved into Mrs. Dole's investments in Kansas and the tax-fraud conviction of her former business manager. So far, these matters have received scant public attention.

Mrs. Clinton, for her part, has invited a higher level of public scrutiny than her predecessors. Public opinion on her tends to break down on partisan lines much more than with previous first ladies, says Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

From the start, Mrs. Clinton "portrayed herself as more of a partisan, and that allowed people to judge her in a more partisan way," says Ms. Bowman.

Even though Mrs. Clinton has retreated to a more background role in the administration, giving speeches to core Democratic constituencies, her public image has been set. What remains unclear is how she is viewed by swing voters - and whether their opinions will influence how they vote in November.

"She's not going to help the ticket much," says George Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M. "But despite the fact that she's got negatives, she's not much of a drag. You could argue that he [President Clinton] would be higher if he didn't have Hillary hanging around his neck, but I'm reluctant to believe that."

Among this year's swing voters - the Ross Perot voters of four years ago - Clinton has some pluses and minuses: He supports abortion rights; Mr. Perot is a libertarian on social issues. But on the minus side, Perot voters are also fed up with "business as usual" in government and any hint that power has been abused. The Whitewater scandal, as well as the White House travel office flap (which heavily involved Mrs. Clinton) and the brewing trouble over FBI files, could loom large for these voters.

Mrs. Dole, meanwhile, has so far carved out a position as a relatively traditional candidate's wife, but with a modern twist. On one level, Mrs. Dole has a more impressive professional record than Mrs. Clinton has.

But as a campaigner for her husband, she has managed to stay out of the limelight, and has avoided any impression that she would play a central policymaking role in a Dole administration. In fact, by asserting that she would return to head the Red Cross as first lady, she has in effect promised to take herself out of the day-to-day operations of the White House.

Some Republicans seem disappointed by this promise. "Why isn't being first lady enough?" says a former Republican White House official.

On the Whitewater front, Senate Republicans issued a report concluding that the evidence suggests Mrs. Clinton likely was behind the disappearance of her billing records outlining her legal work for the failed Arkansas savings and loan at the center of the Whitewater investigation.

The Republicans say Mrs. Clinton had a powerful motive to hide her billing records to cover up her work a decade ago on a fraudulent land development south of Little Rock.

Democrats concluded the Clintons engaged in no wrongdoing and accused Republicans of stretching the evidence to smear Mrs. Clinton.

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