Clinton or Obama: Who's the bigger asset on midterm campaign trail?

For candidates of the president's political party, it's the perennial question in a tough midterm election year -- does a campaign visit from the president help or hurt?

The 2010 midterms add a unique twist to that dynamic as national party strategists have two Democratic presidents to choose from. 

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For Democrats in close House and Senate races, former President Bill Clinton could turn out to be more highly coveted as a surrogate than the man who currently occupies the White House, President Barack Obama.    

"I think [Clinton] presents them with a better opportunity," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

Given the electorate's current state of economic anxiety and frustration with Washington over the pace of economic recovery, Madden said Clinton is the opposition party's safer bet as a surrogate this year.    

"He can generate enthusiasm among the base without many of the other trappings a visit from President Obama would generate," he said.

Democrats point to the impact Clinton has already exerted this campaign season. In May, he headlined an event for Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) in the final days of Pennsylvania's special election to fill the late John Murtha's congressional seat. Critz pulled off a somewhat unexpected win in the Republican-leaning district.

In early June, Clinton headed to Arkansas to prop up embattled Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who had endured months of well-funded attacks from organized labor and other liberal interests in her primary campaign. Many national Democrats think Clinton deserves the credit for Lincoln holding off Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

Where Clinton holds an obvious advantage over Obama, according to one senior Democratic strategist engaged in this year's midterms, are areas with a high concentration of working class Democratic voters -- the breed of Democrat who mixes economic populism with social conservatism.

Concern about the potential negative impact of an Obama campaign visit is heightened by his sagging poll numbers. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out this week has Obama's approval rating at 45 percent -- that's a five-point drop from just a month ago. And a full 60 percent of respondents said the country is on the wrong track.

One positive, said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, is "the president still remains personally popular and people like him." More than 60 percent of respondents in the same poll rated the president as both "easy going and likable." 

"The president remains somebody who will be an asset, period," Hart said. 

The White House has indicated that Obama won't be shy about hitting the campaign trail this year, but he will pick his spots. In some races, the calculation is simpler than others.

Obama isn't likely to make a trip to Arkansas on behalf of Lincoln's re-election, where some national Democrats think Clinton could again play a major role.

The calculation is more difficult in states like Missouri or Ohio. Obama lost Missouri by one point in 2008 and won Ohio. His approval ratings are below 50 percent in those states now. In Missouri, secretary of state Robin Carnahan (D) has a contested Senate race with Rep. Roy Blunt (R) and polls show Ohio's open seat Senate contest between former Rep. Rob Portman (R) and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) in a dead heat.  

So far this cycle, Obama has campaigned or raised money for four Democratic senators: Michael Bennett (D-Colo.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Harry Reid (D-Nv). He has a fundraiser planned for Carnahan in July.

Wherever the president decides to campaign, Republican criticism will follow. For national Republicans, a visit by the president or Vice President Joe Biden offers an opportunity to tie a Democratic candidate to a president with falling approval ratings -- just as it was for Democrats with President George W. Bush during the 2006 cycle.  

According to pollster Hart, that is the major benefit of a surrogate like Clinton -- the current administration's policy problems cast a smaller shadow on the candidate.

"Clinton can take a Democratic message directly to voters without any static," Hart said.    

"He is a safer surrogate," Democratic pollster John Anzalone said of Clinton. "But I don't think surrogates win elections. At the end of the day, you need to win on your own." 

Anzalone, who is polling for several of the party's Blue Dogs this cycle, said Clinton is more of a commodity in marginal states and districts. But even surrogates as powerful as Clinton and Obama have their limits.

"They're good for raising money and generating press attention, but taken alone surrogates don't move enough voters to win an election," he said.  

When it comes to big name draws, the Democratic ranks are thinner for 2010. As the country's top diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will not be making campaign appearances. It's also unlikely that former Vice President Al Gore will be welcomed by any Democrats in competitive races given the negative press attention that has followed the news of his separation with wife Tipper. 

In terms of marquee surrogates, that leaves the president, vice president and First Lady Michelle Obama, who Democrats expect to play a role in select campaigns this cycle.