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Clinton visit may give Ogonowski a campaign challenge

Injecting some political star power into an off-year special election, former president Bill Clinton will head to Lowell later this month to campaign for Niki Tsongas, the Democratic candidate in the Fifth Congressional District.

The event at Lowell Memorial Auditorium Sept. 30 will be difficult to top for her chief opponent, Republican Jim Ogonowski. Ogonowski has tried to cast himself as a nonpartisan everyman, in part by attacking political leaders in his own party.

Hours after winning the primary, Ogonowski said in an interview with WBZ radio that he would decline if President Bush offered to campaign with him. This week, he excoriated House minority leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, for suggesting that troops staying in Iraq "will be a small price if we're able to stop Al-Qaeda."

A visit by presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani could provide a nice backdrop for two politicians who have used Sept. 11, 2001, as an underlying theme in their campaigns. Giuliani was mayor of New York during the attacks, and Ogonowski's brother was the captain of the first plane to strike the World Trade Towers.

But Ogonowski has been a supporter of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Republican primary foe of Giuliani's. Romney's wife and oldest son have each given the maximum amount to Ogonowski's campaign. While Romney performed well in the Fifth District in previous elections, an appearance by the state's former governor would be decidedly ho-hum.

Ogonowski's fallback strategy? Downplay the value of celebrity visits.

"Funny how politicians flock together, endorse each other, kiss each other on the cheek, and then go about the job of politics," Ogonowski's spokesman, Barney Keller, said in a statement yesterday. "We know whose interest they'll represent - other politicians. Jim would rather sit down over coffee with people in the district."

Ogonowski, who in the spring attended a boot camp for Republican candidates, has held fund-raisers recently with former governor Paul Cellucci and US Representative Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut.

Clinton and Tsongas go back at least to 1992, when her late husband, Paul Tsongas, vied with Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary, but the gap was narrow enough that Clinton was deemed the "Comeback Kid" and went on to beat Tsongas to win the nomination.

Time magazine in March 1992 featured both men in a cover story, "Clinton vs. Tsongas," and several days before the Illinois primary, Paul Tsongas aired new commercials attacking Bill Clinton.

"This is Paul Tsongas," the announcer said in one ad. "He's not the guy with all the endorsements from politicians, because he doesn't just make promises."

Now, Ogonowski is running as the outsider. And Niki Tsongas is bringing Bill Clinton to campaign for her.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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