Clinton Unrolling His Coattails in Bid To Carry Congress

On a bunting-draped stage at Ohio State University here this week, congressional candidate Ted Strickland got to introduce student Jenny Nelson who got to introduce President Clinton.

For Mr. Strickland, a Democrat locked in a tight race to win back the House seat he lost two years ago, this is about as good as it gets. A spot on stage with the president brings just the kind of media exposure local politicians crave - at least, in a state where the president is viewed positively.

And as Mr. Clinton repeats scenes like this in numerous states this final week, he implicitly raises one of the biggest remaining questions of the campaign: Can he help the Democrats retake control of the House and Senate?

As the campaign winds down, Clinton is becoming more overt about his efforts to help congressional candidates. His main reason for going to Minnesota and Illinois this week was to help Senate candidates. He will also visit Massachusetts later in the week to aid Sen. John Kerry in his close matchup with Gov. William Weld.

Though he doesn't say much openly about the prospect of a Democratic sweep on Capitol Hill, Clinton has at least one compelling reason to want the Republicans out of power: They would lose the subpoena power needed to continue aggressive pursuit of the White House's ethics. In the House, the Democrats need a net gain of 19 seats in the 435-seat chamber, and in the 100-seat Senate, a net gain of three seats.

But it is doubtful that Clinton can directly influence voters to pull the lever for a local candidate. Much has changed since the 1960s, when voting a straight party ticket was the norm. In 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in a landslide, he pulled across with him a tidal wave of Democratic congressional candidates - giving him the large majority he needed to enact his Great Society program.

Proud independents

Today, voters are more independent-minded, and proudly so, regularly splitting their votes. "I vote the candidate, not the party," said a Tennessee businessman at a recent Clinton-Gore event in Nashville. "I'm especially excited about our own boy, Al Gore, for the 2000 election. But I also like our senators, and they're Republicans."

Still, there's no denying that presidential politics has an impact, both direct and indirect, on people's voting behavior. Two years ago, there was no doubt that Clinton's mishandling of issues like health reform and his inept dealings with Capitol Hill contributed to the sweep that put the GOP in charge of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

This year, the question is turnout - and the presidential race could have direct bearing on that. GOP nominee Bob Dole's campaign has floundered, and "Republicans are bailing out on him," says Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University. "That could affect turnout."

In a swing state like Ohio, where Clinton's lead in the polls is in single digits, turnout becomes especially important. That helps to explain why Ohio has seen 20 visits this month alone from the two candidates, their running mates, and their wives.

But it is not always a given that a Democratic candidate will want the president at his or her side. Some people viscerally dislike him, and some are willing to vote for him only grudgingly, despite the fact many don't trust him. In the South, many candidates hold Clinton at arm's length. When the president recently appeared in Georgia, Democratic Senate candidate Max Cleland - locked in a tight race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn - was willing to be on the stage with Clinton, but kept a distance.

Swing state

Here in Ohio, though, where the Democrats have a chance to take some House seats away from the GOP, campaign appearances with the president are sought after. Especially when a candidate is a challenger, appearances with heavy hitters from the party lend an air of credibility.

In Ohio's 19th Congressional District, Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor visited recently to stump for Democratic challenger Tom Coyne, who's looking to unseat freshman Republican Steve LaTourette. "It shows folks take you seriously," says Josh Block of Ohio's Democratic Party.

In Cleveland, one of the state's highest-profile races has featured former Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich's attempt to oust two-term Republican Martin Hoke. In that race, a steady stream of Democratic big shots - including the president, first lady, Ohio Sen. John Glenn, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank - has stumped for Mr. Kucinich.

"I know serious voters do consider the individual," says Kucinich aide Elizabeth Chamberlain. "However, I think a lot of voters will vote for the president and punch the Democratic ticket just because they happen to be there."

If Clinton wins Ohio by upwards of 12 points, some local analysts look for the Democrats to win some of the close congressional races here as well. "It's not that Clinton is all that popular here, or that he has direct coattails; it will be the turnout effect," says University of Akron political scientist John Green. "It Clinton wins big here, it means a lot of Republicans stayed home."

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