Kerry Unafraid of Clinton Association

A majority of Americans harbor bad feelings toward Bill Clinton (search), but he's no longer the political pariah Al Gore (search) made him out to be four years ago.

Unlike Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry (search) is embracing the former president's economic record and taking action to capitalize on his popularity among minorities. And he's doing it without fear of alienating moderate voters.

Even Republicans concede that the former president isn't a drag on the Democratic ticket. The political phenomena known as "Clinton fatigue" seems to have run its course.

"Kerry was never part of the Clinton administration or the Clinton entourage in the way Gore was, so any ill-will lingering toward Clinton won't rub off on Kerry," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

An Associated Press poll of 1,000 adults from Friday through Sunday revealed that 41 percent hold a favorable view of Clinton and 53 percent think unfavorably of him.

That is a mirror image of Clinton's ratings just before the 2000 election, when slightly more than half of likely voters said they approved of the president. Strategists for Gore, Clinton's vice president for two terms, sensed trouble beneath those numbers and kept Clinton at arms length because:

— They wanted Gore to distinguish himself from his boss to be recognized as a potential chief executive, a tactic used by ambitious vice presidents of the past. "I stand here tonight as my own man," Gore declared at the Democratic National Convention.

— Polls and focus groups tracking swing voters, particularly women, unearthed troubles over Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. While they opposed his impeachment and didn't blame Gore for the controversy, many voters were worn down by Clinton-era scandals and wanted a change of course.

— Gore thought Clinton would alienate more voters than he would energize. Many fellow Democrats disagreed with the Clinton-at-bay strategy, and still do.

From the GOP perspective, President Bush's top advisers contend that, given Clinton's economic record, they could not have argued successfully for a change in the White House without Democrats being tarnished by the Lewinsky affair.

Many of Gore's advisers now work for Kerry. They're no longer running from Clinton.

"It's a completely different situation when the vice president is running with the incumbent president in office," said Kerry strategist Tad Devine, who urged Gore to distance himself from Clinton. "The need for separation there was dramatic."

The White House no longer considers Clinton a major Democratic liability. A senior Bush adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the former president is largely irrelevant to the politics of 2004 because voters passed judgment on him.

Jeff Cox, a 28-year-old moderate Republican from Jefferson, Ga., said Clinton influenced his vote against Gore four years ago. "But he means nothing this year," Cox said. "I won't vote for Kerry, either way. He flip flops."

Devine, the former Gore aide, now argues that Kerry can benefit from Clinton's economic message.

"In terms of Clinton and Kerry, they share a lot of the same policies and platform — whether it's fiscal discipline, welfare reform, the cops-on-the-street program," Devine said.

That's where Republicans draw the line.

"Kerry is far to the left of Clinton on a great many issues — death penalty and gay marriage being just two," GOP pollster Ayres said. "Having voters reminded of the policy differences between a centrist Clinton and a liberal Kerry is not helpful to Kerry's cause."

Bush strategist Matthew Dowd said the former president can help Kerry energize Democratic voters. The AP poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, showed that two-thirds of Democrats approve of Clinton. Four out of five Republicans disapprove.

Independent voters were only slightly more likely to disapprove of the former president than approve. Doug Sosnik, a strategist in the Clinton White House, said the numbers suggest he won't win or lose a vote for Kerry.

Though Devine defends Gore's strategy, other Kerry advisers privately argue that the former vice president hurt his candidacy by pushing Clinton away so bluntly.

They hope to show more finesse. Kerry frequently mentions Clinton's economic record, and the former president is tentatively scheduled to speak on the first night of the Democratic National Convention. The campaign plans to keep Clinton busy on Kerry's behalf after the convention.

Keeping Clinton at their side gives Kerry's advisers some control over Clinton's schedule. They hope to minimize his ability to overshadow or hurt their campaign.

Kerry's advisers say Clinton is an astute politician. They're counting on him to recognize both his strengths and weaknesses as a surrogate.