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To be or not to be Hillary Clinton

Poll: Use of maiden name changes way public feels about senator

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Respondents in a recent poll seem to like "Hillary Rodham Clinton" better than "Hillary Clinton."

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Hillary Rodham Clinton

(CNN) -- Who would make a better candidate, Hillary Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton? If you're thinking it doesn't matter, you're probably a Democrat.

Most Americans' feelings toward the Democratic senator from New York change depending on which name is used, according to a recent poll conducted by Opinion Research Corp. for CNN.

Including Hillary Clinton's maiden name increased her approval rating among Republicans polled to 23 percent. "Hillary Clinton" had a 16 percent approval rating among people who identified themselves as Republican.(View full results)

Among people who said they were independent, "Hillary Rodham Clinton" was favored by 48 percent, compared with 42 percent for "Hillary Clinton."

Why do six little letters have such a big impact on the public's views of Sen. Clinton? "The differences are largely a matter of class and tradition," said CNN's Polling Director Keating Holland.

The name seemed to matter little to Democrats; the inclusion of "Rodham" inspired only a 1 percent decrease in her approval rating, from 77 to 76 percent.

But below the Mason-Dixon Line, "Hillary Clinton" got a favorable rating from 52 percent of all respondents, compared with 45 percent for "Hillary Rodham Clinton."

In the rest of the country, the opposite was true: 43 percent of all people polled gave "Hillary Clinton" a positive rating and 53 percent rated "Hillary Rodham Clinton" positively.

Clinton has had to face this dilemma in the South before, after her husband, then-Gov. Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas), lost re-election in 1980. At that time, she did not take his last name and was referred to as Hillary Rodham.

When he ran again for the governorship two years later, she changed her name to Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton won that election and 10 years later, he would be elected the 42nd president of the United States.

Such subtleties appear to have not been lost on Clinton, who is seeking re-election to the Senate this fall and has been mentioned as a possible 2008 presidential candidate.

So, if Clinton does mount a national presidential campaign, should she drop "Rodham" from her name, which helps her in the South, or keep it, which improves her standing with independents?

An adviser to one of her potential Democratic rivals for the party's presidential nomination said the answer is simple: Keep the maiden name.

"Once there is a Republican running against her, it doesn't matter in the South because they are going to be for the Republican, so you might as well get every advantage you can elsewhere among independents," said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Clinton's Senate Web site refers to her on first reference, almost without fail, as Hillary Rodham Clinton, as do her press releases.

As for all Americans, there does not appear to be a major difference of opinion of whether or not Clinton should keep her maiden name.

When asked to give their thoughts on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, 50 percent of Americans responded favorably, while this number dropped to 46 percent when her maiden name was excluded. This gap is within the 4.5 percent margin of error built into the poll. But her unfavorable rating remains the same with (42 percent) or without (43 percent) using Rodham in her name.

Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the Rothenberg Political Report, said her high unfavorability rating is the biggest challenge the junior senator from New York faces if she decides to run in 2008.

"With or without Rodham, 42 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of her and that is a tough place to start a national campaign," he said.

The telephone survey was conducted Friday through Sunday among 1,012 American adults, half of whom were asked to rate Hillary Clinton and the other half asked to rate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Most of the questions in the CNN poll have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 to 5 percent.

CNN's Mark Preston contributed to this report.

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