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The '08 Battle For the Hill: Clinton vs. Bush

The more you listen to lawmakers on both ends of the Capitol, the more you understand that next year's congressional races may become a proxy in the long-running feud between this era's political version of the Hatfields and McCoys.

For voters who have grown tired of the Bush-Clinton wars since 1992, next year could be rather exhausting. If she's the presidential nominee, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will be running a campaigning seeking to link her Republican opponent to the policies of President Bush. And don't be surprised to see countless ads by congressional Democrats that morph pictures of their GOP rivals into images of Bush.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee just released a memo regarding its party's victories in state and local elections in Virginia and Kentucky on Tuesday. It makes clear that the 2008 campaign is going to be run just like 2006: against President Bush, regardless of who the Republicans choose as their presidential nominee.

"The story of the 2007 elections is that Democrats continue to own the change message. ... The 2007 elections were not anti-incumbent elections; they were a continuation of last cycle's 'throw Republicans out' elections," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the DCCC, wrote.

As I reported in this story last night, Democrats are increasingly confident of their ability to make significant gains in both the House and Senate in next year's elections. That's partly because of the institutional advantages they hold, including fewer retiring incumbents and much more campaign cash at their disposal. But even more important is their belief that Bush's drag on GOP candidates will again be crippling. "We believe that will be a potent issue in 2008," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said recently.

But Republicans have left little doubt they expect Clinton to win the Democratic nomination, which they believe will serve as a springboard for their candidates trying to win back seats in conservative leaning districts. Expect to see more than a few GOP ads morphing Democratic congressional candidates into Hillary Clinton.

"I think the '08 election is going to be about Senator Clinton and where she wants to take America," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) bluntly stated Wednesday. At a press conference mocking the one-year anniversary of the Democratic takeover of Congress, McConnell listed just two messages for his party next year: anti-taxes, anti-Clinton. Asked for more items, McConnell said that would be left to the GOP presidential nominee.

So, this begs the question, who's the bigger drag on his or hers party's congressional candidates: Bush weighing down GOP House and Senate candidates, or Clinton on Democrats? Too close to call, possibly.

Bush is dramatically more unpopular than Clinton right now. His approval-disapproval rating is 33 to 64 percent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. And Sen. Clinton's is at 50 to 46 percent, which is not great but still respectable.

However, looking closer at the data, Clinton's approval rating is terrible when focusing on those voters who feel "strongly" for or against her: 28 percent strongly approve, while 35 percent strongly disapprove. (It's the soft voters, "somewhat" approving or disapproving, who provide the overall favorable image of her: 22 percent approving, 11 percent disapproving.)

At this early stage of the campaign, Clinton is divisive enough that she inspires political hatred among more than a third of the electorate. That percentage could go higher as the general election starts and independent voters - many of whom currently fall in the "somewhat" approving/disapproving camps with Clinton - begin to focus on the nominees. This could push Clinton's "strongly" disapproving number close to the 50 percent of voters who currently "strongly" disapprove of Bush.

Republicans claim the first example of the anti-Clinton effect hit last week when Jim Esch (D-Neb.) declined a rematch against Rep. Lee Terry (R) next year, specifically citing Clinton's potential drag on his chances. Granted, this was in conservative Nebraska, the last state to receive a visit from Bill Clinton during his presidency - just a month before he left office.

But Democrats collected 30 seats from House Republicans last year, many of which are quite similar to Terry's. And Republicans are very clear that, if Clinton is the nominee, they will encourage candidates to link opponents to her and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose popularity has steadily waned all year amid marginal legislative successes.

"That is Exhibit A that there are congressional districts in America where Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are barred from visiting," Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference, said of Esch's no-go decision.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said his colleagues are already thinking of crafting next year's political strategy around an anti-Clinton theme. "Sure, we're beginning to think in those terms," Lott told Capitol Briefing. But, when asked who would be more damaging to congressional candidates next year - President Bush or Hillary Clinton - Lott paused for several seconds. He smiled as he pondered the conundrum that may go a long way to deciding the outcome of House and Senate races.

"I don't know," he said. "It'd just be pure speculation."

By Paul Kane  |  November 9, 2007; 8:00 AM ET
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