WASHINGTON -- Twenty years ago, when Sen. Bob Dole was up for re-election in Kansas in the midst of the Watergate scandal, a reporter asked him whether he wanted embattled President Richard Nixon to come into the state to campaign for him.
"I'd settle for a fly-over in Air Force One," Dole replied with characteristic biting wit.
Matters haven't reached that stage for President Clinton, as he strives to use his incumbency to help elect enough Democratic senators and House members to turn back the determined Republican drive to win control of one or both houses of Congress in November.
But it is evident from the way Democrats in various states are trying to keep their distance from a president running weakly in the polls that Bill Clinton is at best a mixed blessing for candidates of his party who desperately need help against what poll-takers say appears to be a Republican tide.
As a fund-raiser, he continues to be a potent force, by virtue of the prestige of his office, if nothing else. According to the Democratic National Committee, he has raised more than $32 million for the party and its candidates since taking office.
In flying trips last weekend to Chicago and then into Minnesota and Missouri for Democrats seeking election to Senate seats being vacated by Republican incumbents, Clinton again made the cash registers ring.
He raised a reported $1 million, a modest figure by past Republican fund-raising standards, but not exactly chicken feed, either.
But Clinton's efforts to make the accomplishments of his own first two years in the Oval Office an inducement to elect more Democrats to Congress clearly are a harder sell. Although those accomplishments are real -- budget deficit reduction, NAFTA, new crime legislation, the Brady gun control law, a national service corps -- they apparently have not registered clearly or persuasively with voters.
There are various opinions about why this is so, but one reason obviously is his reputation as a politician given to accentuating .. the positive and eliminating the negative, as the old Johnny Mercer song put it. So, no matter how much he talks about what he has done -- and he continues to talk about it more and more -- he suffers from a credibility problem with many who don't know what he's done and have already made up their minds that he talks a better game than he plays.
Furthermore, in emphasizing what he has done, Clinton plays into the hands of the Republicans, who are striving to "nationalize" the midterm congressional elections -- that is, get voters to cast their ballots on the basis of how they feel about the president rather than according to their assessment of individual local candidates running on local issues.
In the past, such efforts seldom have been successful. Reagan, for all his popularity, had no coattails in the 1982 and 1986 midterm congressional elections that followed his two presidential landslides in 1980 and 1984. The Democrats picked up 26 House seats in 1982 and five in 1986, and in that year they also gained eight new senators, wresting control of the Senate from Reagan's party.
Still, Clinton must do what he can to help his own party in the midterm campaigns, for his own sake as well as the Democrats running.
If the pollsters are correct, the Democratic Party is in jeopardy of losing at least enough seats to strengthen the hand of a conservative coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the House, and could lose the seven seats that would return the Senate to Republican control.
Fund-raising clearly is the ticket for a president who personally may not help a Democratic candidate, and may even hurt one with his presence, but who by the prestige and drawing power of his office can help provide the financial wherewithal to fund a campaign on local issues.
What must be frustrating for this particular president in such a reading is that he is renowned for, and takes obvious pride and sustenance from, his ability as an extemporaneous speaker.
With the possible exception of Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, there is no one in politics today who is better at it.
But as long as voters doubt Clinton's credibility, his strongest service to his party and fellow Democrats will be to keep those cash registers ringing.