Political Pulse May 2006

Identifying Features

In the 2008 presidential race, will she call herself Hillary Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton?
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"What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked. The answer seems to be "Plenty."

During her first years of marriage, Hillary Rodham kept her maiden name. Then, Bill Clinton lost his bid for re-election after one term as governor of Arkansas. When he ran again two years later, his wife became Hillary Rodham Clinton. And he won. Now she's Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. Or is it Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton?

Among Americans polled nationwide by the Opinion Research Corp. for CNN, "Hillary Rodham Clinton" gets a slightly higher favorability rating than "Hillary Clinton"—50 percent, compared with 46 percent. Among Southerners, though, "Hillary Clinton" is more positively regarded (52 percent to 45 percent). Married name only. Outside the South, people definitely prefer "Hillary Rodham Clinton" (53 percent to 43 percent). Since the Constitution allows states to write their own ballots, she could be Hillary Rodham Clinton in, say, her native Illinois and Hillary Clinton in Arkansas.

If you combine responses to both names across the country, the public's view of Sen. Clinton, the front-runner for her party's 2008 presidential nomination, is sharply divided—48 percent favorable, 43 percent unfavorable. Compare that with the public's view of the Republican front-runner, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. McCain gets about the same favorable rating as Clinton, 46 percent, but his unfavorable rating is only 20 percent.

Sen. Clinton has been making a determined effort to establish a record of reaching across party lines. "It's true that I worked with Newt Gingrich, and it makes strange bedfellows," she told an audience in Chicago last month. Later she added, "The bipartisan bill that [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist and I have introduced, we believe, can save up to $100 billion" in health care costs. Meanwhile, McCain has been positioning himself as a staunch supporter of President Bush. "Anybody that says the president of the United States was lying about weapons of mass destruction is lying," McCain declared at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in March.

Nevertheless, the old images persist. Sen. Clinton still divides Americans by party. She gets a 76 percent favorable rating from Democrats, but just a 20 percent favorable score from Republicans. Americans still view McCain as an independent and a maverick. Republicans, Democrats, and independents share similar opinions of the senator from Arizona: 48 percent favorable among Republicans, 43 percent among Democrats, and 49 percent among independents. Those kinds of results are rare in this highly partisan era.

McCain's current image may give him an advantage. In a 2008 presidential poll taken last week by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News, McCain led Clinton among registered voters, 46 percent to 37 percent. All other things being equal, McCain looks like the stronger candidate. He has an impressive military record, and he spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Clinton, meanwhile, is trying to gain military credentials as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Clinton would also certainly have to deal with the issue of what, if any, role her husband would play in her administration. The former president tried to help dispense with that issue when he said last month, "I determined when I left office that I was absolutely not going to spend the rest of my life wishing I were still president."

Of course, all other things are not equal. If the two senators face each other in 2008, some factors—like the voters' desire for change—are likely to favor Clinton. In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, two-thirds of Americans said the nation is "on the wrong track." In the CNN poll, respondents gave Bush a 57 percent unfavorable rating. And Bill Clinton's image? Fifty-seven percent favorable. That number suggests that Americans might be feeling nostalgic for the economic "good times" of the Clinton era. Sen. Clinton appears to be aware of that. "I obviously am an adherent to the Clinton economic policies," she recently said.

What happens in 2008 may depend on who's running—the old McCain or the new McCain, the old Hillary or the new Hillary—and on what name the New York senator chooses to go by.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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