Michel du Cille  /  Washington Post
Former Democratic President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), seen unveilnig their official portraits for the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year, have become hot for political ads, both pro and con.
updated 7/28/2006 3:04:14 PM ET 2006-07-28T19:04:14

Whether it's Bill or Hillary, the Clinton name is hot copy in political advertising these days.

With midterm elections less than four months away, Democrats are invoking the former president to motivate voters with nostalgia. Republicans cite the former first lady and New York senator to mobilize her foes.

Pete Ricketts, the Republican Senate candidate in Nebraska, warns in a recent ad that "a Democratic Senate controlled by Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy promises an agenda of higher taxes, more government spending and liberal judges."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the embattled Connecticut Democrat facing a tough primary challenge, began airing an ad this week that is nothing more than a full-throated endorsement from Bill Clinton.

"Go out and elect Joe Lieberman. He's earned it. He's been a good Democrat, he's a good man and he'll do you proud," Clinton says in footage pulled from a Clinton speech in Connecticut Monday. The ad ends with a Clinton-Lieberman embrace.

Playing on voters' passions
The ads seek to capitalize now and in November on the strong passions with which voters remember the Clintons. Call it a back-to-the-future strategy that both Democrats and Republicans believe will reap rewards.

President Clinton, a formidable Democratic fundraiser, has been growing in popularity, even among Republicans. His job approval ratings were at 61 percent last month, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. President Bush's approval rating in the same poll was 36 percent.

Hillary Clinton appears to be a more polarizing figure. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in May found that 54 percent of those surveyed had a favorable impression of her while 42 percent found her unfavorable. Among Republicans, 73 percent had an unfavorable impression.

To many conservatives, she remains a feminist liberal who tolerated her husband's philandering and blamed the president's troubles on a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

"For Republicans, Hillary is the new Ted Kennedy _ the person in the Senate who typifies the most liberal of liberal Democrats," Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said.

Unique positioning
Using divisive political figures to energize voters is a long-standing strategy. Former House Majority leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is a popular feature in Democratic advertising. But the Clintons stand out as a couple used to light a fire at both ends of the political spectrum.

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Still, how politicians depict the Clintons depends on the region of the country and the race at stake.

In Tennessee, two Republicans in a three-way primary contest for Senate, competed to establish their anti-Clinton credentials.

Ed Bryant, a former member of the House, used one recent ad to help remind voters of President Clinton's 1998 impeachment trial, which Bryant helped prosecute as a member of the House Judiciary Committee. The ad displayed a headline from the Chattanooga Times Free Press: "Clinton's Multiplied Lies."

Van Hilleary, also a former House member, tried to gain a leg up by citing both Clintons in his appeal to conservative voters.

"In Washington, I voted against Bill Clinton more than any other member of Congress," he says in a television ad. "America needs senators who will cut spending, secure our borders and fight Hillary Clinton every step of the way."

Bill Clinton
President Clinton's overall appeal makes attacks on him exclusively a primary election tactic, Newhouse said. "That does not have legs in most general election races," he said.

That would be specially true in Arkansas. Former Republican Rep. Asa Hutchison, who is running for governor, avoids any mention that he, like Bryant, was an impeachment manager. Conversely, Bill Halter, a Democratic candidate for Arkansas lieutenant governor and a former Clinton administration official, has an ad that displays a photograph of him with Clinton.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee concluded a recent Web ad titled "America needs a new direction" with a photograph of a triumphant Bill Clinton. "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America," Clinton intoned.

But those ads reached small audiences and amounted to what strategists call "micro-targeting." Lieberman's ad this week turned Bill Clinton from a small-bore advertising weapon to a potent gun.

Bill Clinton is particularly effective for a candidate like Lieberman, who needs to burnish his Democratic credentials. But some Democratic consultants wonder whether the former president would work as well in a general election campaign.

"If you want to telegraph a symbol that you are true blue Democrat and that you want an economy and peace and prosperity like we had under that president, he is a convenient symbol to show a difference with Bush," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant. "I'm not sure if Clinton yet has reached the iconic status like Reagan did for Republicans in red states."

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton, however, is destined to become a popular bugbear for Republicans. Ricketts, the Republican candidate seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, has mentioned the New York senator in recent radio and television ads and includes her image among those of Kennedy and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in a current ad airing in the state.

"When you have individuals who are polarizing politically, it makes it much easier for voters to make a political judgment about ideology and approach to issues," said Doug McAuliffe, a Republican media consultant who wrote the Ricketts' ads and is working with other GOP candidates in this year's campaigns.

"With base voters, it gets the blood boiling," he said.

Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 3-to-2 in Nebraska, and McAuliffe said races for federal office are far more ideological than state races.

But Nelson, the Democrat in the Senate who votes most often with Republicans, dismissed the effectiveness of the Rickett's strategy.

"Nebraska is essentially a populist state, not a partisan state," he said. "People just don't buy it."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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