The heavy-hitter gap

THE HEAVY-HITTER GAP…. Former President Clinton was in Las Vegas last week, giving Harry Reid a hand with his re-election bid. Roll Call reports today that we can expect to see quite a bit more of the Big Dog on the campaign trail this year.

Even at this early stage in the campaign season, Obama is already dispatching Clinton into some of the roughest electoral territory in the country. And the good news keeps rolling in.

The former president helped to bring out nearly 700 Democrats to cheer on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) at a rally Thursday. And some say he may have single-handedly saved Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) from a bruising primary defeat last week; she relied heavily on ads that Clinton — a former Arkansas governor — cut for her in the final days of her campaign.

And this is just the beginning.

“He’s always been an asset. … He attracts big crowds, he works tirelessly and he’s a great fundraiser for people. You’re going to see him used as a surrogate and a fundraiser throughout this cycle,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said.

The piece explains that there’s a strong regional dynamic at play with the former president. Rep. Charlie Melancon (D), running for the Senate in Louisiana, conceded that Clinton tends to “play better” in the South than President Obama. I suspect for much of the region, that’s true.

Josh Marshall has some worthwhile thoughts on this, emphasizing the racial angle. It’s a compelling point. But reading about Clinton’s strengths as a campaign asset, something else occurred to me: Republicans seem to be facing what I call the “heavy-hitter gap.”

Democratic candidates looking to get a boost from a high-profile figure have some strong leaders to choose from. President Obama remains the most popular political figure in Washington, and former President Clinton is held in very high regard by a majority of the country. If you include Vice President Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, and perhaps even Al Gore in the mix, there are quite a few well-liked national Democratic figures out there that Dem candidates would love to have stop by.

On the other side of the aisle, the bench is a little thinner. OK, more than a little. Looking back over the last 100 years, the only GOP president Republicans actually like is Reagan, and he died several years ago. Few GOP candidates will want to be seen with Dick Cheney, and even fewer with George W. Bush. Mitt Romney isn’t much of a draw, and Tim Pawlenty isn’t even popular in Minnesota. Who’s left? Jeb Bush? Newt Gingrich?

There’s also, of course, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who isn’t well liked by most Americans, and who is more likely to be used by Dems as a right-wing caricature than Republicans as a campaign asset. (Note that in New Jersey and Virginia last year, Palin volunteered to campaign with the GOP gubernatorial nominees. They both refused, told her to stay the hell away, and won.)

As a practical matter, endorsements and public appearances by national figures doesn’t always translate to votes and victories (cough, Martha Coakley, cough). It can help with media and fundraising, but candidates still need to run strong campaigns to win.

That said, Dems probably take some solace knowing they can call on some strong, popular leaders if they need them — and Republicans can’t.