Senate Candidate Downplays Ties to Clinton

Erskine Bowles served as White House chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton. But the Democratic front-runner in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race makes no mention of his former boss in campaign ads.

"I’m running on my own experience in this campaign," Bowles said. "I don’t think the people of North Carolina are going to vote for someone based on who their connections are with — although I have great connections in Washington."

But Bowles’ connection to the former president may prove to be the biggest hurdle in his bid for the seat of retiring Republican Senator Jesse Helms.

Although Clinton remains popular among core Democrats, he failed to carry Bowles’ home state in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections.

"President Clinton is a two-edged sword in North Carolina," Bowles said.

A campaign flier indicates that Bowles "served his country as head of the Small Business Administration and Chief of Staff to the President." But nowhere does the flier mention the former president by name.

Images of Clinton are also absent from Bowles’ TV advertisements. Instead, one spot shows a picture of Bowles shaking hands with Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, while a narrator reads, "Erskine Bowles brought Democrats and Republicans together in Washington to negotiate the first balanced budget in 30 years."

The Senator later asked the Bowles campaign to stop using the picture, which was taken moments before the two appeared together on a Sunday morning talk show. Lott supports Republican Elizabeth Dole, who is expected to face Bowles in the November general election.

"What’s likely to happen is that Elizabeth Dole will bring Bill Clinton into the mix, linking Clinton and Bowles at the hip," said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation — a non-partisan conservative think thank.

Bowles has already prepared for the criticism.

"What he did was just plain wrong," Bowles said of the former president’s sexual scandals. "On the other hand, I think if you look at what we accomplished in his administration … I think we’ve got a lot to be proud of."

The challenge for Bowles will be to distance himself from the former president’s personal scandals without losing claim to his own political achievements in the Clinton White House.

"To downplay his role in the Clinton Administration is to undercut his major qualification for office — his experience in Washington," said Hood.

This year Bowles is among roughly a dozen Clinton Administration veterans running for prominent political offices. All of them face the difficult decision of whether to treat service to their former boss as a legacy or a curse.