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How Clinton Could Help -- And Hurt -- Kerry

You can't blame John Kerry and George Bush if they are getting a wee bit frustrated at the giant shadows cast over the Presidential campaign landscape. But while Bush worries that he won't measure up to Ronald Reagan, Kerry is saddled with a more complex set of political problems created by the public reemergence of Bill Clinton. Kerry can probably withstand pundits' withering comparisons between him and the charismatic Clinton, who's about to launch a nationwide tour for his memoir, My Life. But presumed Democratic nominee Kerry will have a tougher time coping with the damage Clinton's larger-than-life persona could cause among key voting blocs.

With core Democratic constituencies, the 42nd President has held on to -- and even elevated -- his Springsteenian rock-star status since leaving the White House. But among other groups Kerry covets -- including highly educated women, union families, blue-collar females, and older women -- Bill is no Bruce. While Clinton's personal approval numbers have improved from 40% to 52% in the past year in Fox News/Opinion Dynamics polls, he has just a 49% rating in battleground states. Clinton's ratings remain lowest in the Midwest -- a must-win region for Kerry. "He is very controversial and widely disliked among swing voters," says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "It's Kerry's job to make lemonade out of lemons."

How? After extensive consultations, the Kerry and Clinton camps have agreed that the former leader will use his book tour to reinforce public perceptions of his Presidency as a time of prosperity, fiscal responsibility, and international cooperation -- a not-so-subtle contrast to the Bush era. The Kerry campaign also thinks Clinton can be particularly helpful in turning out both the Democratic base and young voters in November. According to a June 8-9 Fox poll, the former President remains overwhelmingly popular among liberals (78% approval), minorities (71%), those earning less than $25,000 (68%), and the under-30 crowd (58%). With these audiences, says independent pollster John Zogby, "John Kerry should use Clinton often and well."

To the Battlegrounds

In addition to raising gobs of campaign cash, Clinton could aid Kerry in states with left-leaning urban centers. Zogby predicts that the ex-President will stump in heavily African American cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, as well as liberal bastions Madison, Wis.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle -- all in battleground states. He also could boost the Democratic vote in swing states he carried in '96, including Arkansas, New Hampshire, and West Virginia.

But Kerry isn't the only pol wooing Bill fans. Bush sees an opening with the 15% of voters who, according to the Fox poll, like both Presidents. Targets of opportunity: Catholics, young voters, and the working poor. No wonder Bush was gushing at the June 14 unveiling of Clinton's White House portrait. "The years have done a lot to clarify the strengths of this man," Bush said. "Bill Clinton could always see a better day ahead."

Such flattery will enhance Clinton's stature -- and widen the comparison gap with Kerry. But with My Life likely to make headlines for weeks, Kerry has little choice but to embrace Clinton and pray that the polarizing political giant from Hope helps him more than he hurts him.

The days of blank checks for the Defense Dept. may be over. The usually Pentagon-friendly House Appropriations Committee on June 16 passed a military money bill that's $10 billion below what President Bush had requested -- and $30 billion less than the House had previously authorized. The $417 billion bill includes $25 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan operations and represents a hefty 6% hike over fiscal 2004. Still, as Congress wrestles with record deficits, lawmakers chipped away at Administration requests for missile defense, the Navy's new DD(X) destroyer, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the Space-Based Laser.

Only 17 states have been targeted by both Presidential campaigns in 2004. But John Kerry and George Bush are hoping to expand the number of competitive states. The Democrats are buying TV time in Arkansas and Louisiana, both Bush territory. They're also mulling a foray into the GOP strongholds of Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia, where Dems sense softness in Bush's support. Meanwhile, Republicans are thinking of upping the ante in Democratic New Jersey. Polls there show Kerry's lead is tenuous.

The goal: to force the enemy to respond by spending precious time and resources in states it previously had taken for granted. Democratic consultant Donna Brazile dubs this "the bubble strategy," a reference to the borderline teams "on the bubble" that may or may not make the cut for the NCAA Final Four tournament.

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