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Inside Politics

You don't have to be liked to be president ... but it helps

Story Highlights

• Sen. Clinton is not the most liked presidential hopeful, but she is leading
• Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards are more liked
• Clinton leads because she impressed voters with her experience
• Voters want to know if someone can do the job first, but want to like candidate
By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Does likeability matter for a presidential candidate?

It may not be the determining factor, but likeability does matter.

Hillary Clinton is now the frontrunner among New Hampshire Democrats. But when Democrats were asked which candidate they find most likeable, Clinton came in third, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards. (View the candidates' likeability ratings)

Is that a problem? Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at the Brookings Institution in Washington is not so sure.

"If you were listing the things a president had to be good at, like being commander-in-chief or being chief executive of a federal bureaucracy, you wouldn't put likeability up there as a necessary quality."

But it helps. Mr. Hess worked in the Eisenhower administration, which had the winning campaign slogan "I like Ike."

Likeability has come to matter more because, in the age of television, Americans have a personal relationship with their president, probably more than any other elected official.

The president comes into people's homes -- and bedrooms -- nearly every day.

People want to spend time with someone they like -- like former President Ronald Reagan.

Have Americans elected a president they didn't particularly like? "Try Richard M. Nixon," Hess said. "Twice."

Well, yes, but Nixon's lack of personal appeal may have defeated him the first time he ran. The second time, he won narrowly, and we know what happened after that.

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are rated pretty likeable by New Hampshire Republicans. John McCain is not -- maybe too much straight talk on Iraq and immigration. (Read how Romney has surged ahead in New Hampshire)

New Yorkers are probably astonished to hear their former mayor described as likeable, but the new Rudy has put on a smiley face. He even joked with the audience at the New Hampshire debate when he was asked about a Catholic bishop's criticism of his views on abortion -- and the building was struck by lightning.

"Look, for someone who went to parochial schools all his life, this is a very frightening thing that's happening right now," Giuliani said, as the audience laughed.

Sen. Clinton wants to prove she is tough enough for the job. Asked about her 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, she replied, "If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said that his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from." (Watch how Sen. Clinton moved ahead of the pack in New Hampshire Video)

Maybe that makes her less likeable, but it could a risk worth taking. "Hillary impresses people in all sorts of different ways and clearly they rank her high on experience,'' Hess said.

"And so ultimately, when you have to choose experience or likeability, my hunch is you'll go with experience."

When people choose a president, it's like hiring someone for a job. The first thing voters want to know is, can the candidate do the job? Once they're satisfied with the answer, they ask, "OK, but is this someone I like? After all, we're going to have to work together for the next four years.''

According to a new CNN poll, Sen. HIllary Clinton leads -- even though Democrats find Sen. Barack Obama more likeable.



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