Politics

The Wrong Race

By

"Do you think tonight's the night?" I've been expecting this question all evening, but the man's low, teasing voice nonetheless causes me to catch my breath. He stands only inches from me, a wicked gleam in his eye, a gentle smile of anticipation and expectation on his lips. The hour is late, and in my heart I know that he deserves an answer. After all, we are here, in a posh Manhattan hotel. The wine has been poured, the lights are low, and soft music perfumes the room around us. But, after a pregnant pause, I face the fact that I cannot give the gentleman what he wants. I simply have no idea when Hillary Clinton will announce her run for Senate.

Sure. Sure. It's not a done deal yet. There's still the possibility that the first lady will decline to enter the New York race, opting instead to spend her post-White House years as head of a charity, a university, or possibly the World Bank. But, more and more these days, the central question regarding Hillary-for-Senate is not "if" but "when."

Part of the swelling certainty is wishful thinking on the part of Democrats. What began as off-handed flattery by Charlie Rangel, the congressman from Harlem, has ballooned into a sort of mass mania: Hillary must run. She is the party's only hope against New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the likely Republican nominee. Her candidacy will spark a political renaissance, energizing Democrats nationwide. Inspired by her willingness to fight the good progressive fight (even after all she's been through!), Americans, especially young people and women, will rush to get involved. Volunteerism will skyrocket, voter participation will surge, and, most important, wallets will open wide. The race will be tough, but, ultimately, Hillary will be swept into office, where she will reign as far more than a lowly freshman championing upstate dairy farmers. She will "shine a light" on issues of importance to women, children, and the poor. She will be this generation's Bobby Kennedy. Camelot is once again within our grasp. Hillary in 2008!

To be sure, not everyone is quite so gung ho. Some of the first lady's friends are privately counseling against a run, and a handful of Democratic politicians and supporters have publicly expressed concern. The major objection seems to be that, after six years in the inhospitable fishbowl of the White House, Hillary should not subject herself to further abuse. In an April poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, a majority of respondents--including many who said they would vote for HRC--felt that she shouldn't run. Their reasoning, explains director Lee Miringoff, wasn't based on the first lady's electability. It was more along the lines of, "What does she need this aggravation for?"

There have also been rumblings about what a Hillary run might mean for the Clinton legacy. If she and Al Gore won their respective races, who would be the official torchbearer of the "Third Way"? If she lost, would that strip some of the shine from a Gore victory? And what if they both lost? How would that play in the history books for poor Bill?

At the risk of seeming insensitive: Who cares? Political achievements notwithstanding, after everything Bill Clinton has put our nation through, so what if his legacy remains a crusty dress and a contempt citation? Likewise, agonizing over the slings and arrows poor Hillary might suffer on the campaign trail is a monumental waste of energy. She's a big girl. She knows how the game is played. And, here again, why should the American electorate spend even ten minutes trying to fathom the life choices of a woman who, for nearly three decades, has stuck by a guy who long ago sold his moral compass for a piece of ass?

Democrats in particular have bigger, more serious questions to chew over-- the biggest and most serious being: What would a Hillary candidacy really mean for the party? The first lady is said to be contemplating whether she could bear to run and lose. But, even if she ran and won, there's the very real possibility that her candidacy could handicap the party nationwide. She could divert resources from other candidates, politicize their races in ways that don't play well beyond the Upper West Side, and become a rallying point for conservatives still itching to exploit anti-Clinton sentiment. She could, in other words, do precisely what her husband has done time and again-- sacrifice the good of her party and her cause to satisfy her own ambitions.

At this point, most Democrats are too busy praying for a Hillary candidacy to ponder its potential downside. Hillary fever is nowhere more evident than among the party faithful in New York City. My long night at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan was spent, not sipping Chardonnay with a charming suitor, but among 750 Democrats at the first annual Jefferson-Jackson State Committee Dinner. At $150 a plate (or $1,000 if one wished to attend a predinner reception with HRC), the dinner was a tedious affair, primarily an opportunity for county chairs and state politicos to celebrate themselves while raising lots of money. A dozen speakers took to the podium, each armed with talking points and a list of 20 people to thank. At the back of the room, penned behind metal police barricades along with several dozen other media folk, I felt as though I were trapped at a low-budget version of the Oscars, with every key grip and best boy being saluted for his efforts.

But there was only one star in attendance at this ceremony. The first lady, looking very NYC in a smart black suit, sparkled her way through the evening-- bantering with tablemates, delicately sipping iced tea, looking coy at every hopeful mention of her candidacy, and smiling brightly at all those who approached her table to pay tribute. The event's underlying purpose was clearly to show Hillary how much the Empire State loves her and how fabulous it would be to be a part of it, New York, New York (a few bars of which accompanied her entrance into dinner). She stayed long after the last dessert was devoured and the last apparatchik thanked. "A half hour after the event ended, she was still working the line--just like her husband," says Victor Kovner, a big-money Democrat who ran the '96 Clinton-Gore campaign in New York. "If that's not the indicia of a candidate, I don't know what is."

You can't really blame the New York Dems. Whatever her plans, the first lady is shamelessly feeding the speculative frenzy with her candidate-like behavior. There are certain steps one must take if one is serious about running a statewide race in New York--steps far more pedestrian than nibbling grilled salmon at Midtown fund-raisers. One must shuffle off to Buffalo and Plattsburgh, Watertown and Yonkers. There are hands to shake and cheeks to kiss and dozens of local issues on which to bone up. And, thus far, under the tutelage of former White House adviser Harold Ickes, Clinton seems to be making all the right moves.

For starters, the pseudo-candidate has been burning up the phone lines between Washington and New York, working her way down The List. Compiled by Ickes, a veteran of New York politics, The List comprises 200 names of "must call" players around the state, including politicians, party operatives, religious leaders, union leaders, leaders of the African American and gay communities, and so on. Among HRC's strategic circle of phone pals is Erie County Party Chairman Steven Pigeon, whose district includes the city of Buffalo. While Democrats generally fare well on Election Day in New York City, upstate--with its dozens of small, rural counties--traditionally goes Republican. Certain urban centers, such as Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo, are vital to helping Democrats cut into the GOP's margins. Pigeon, therefore, is a good man to know. Among the scintillating local issues on which he (like several other upstate chairmen) has been briefing the first lady: outrageous airfares, the lack of a decent North-South interstate, and the battle with Canada over whether to expand or replace the Peace Bridge, which links Buffalo with Fort Erie, Ontario. More broadly, he says, upstate voters are looking for someone to spotlight the region's stubbornly stagnant economy. Clinton is already on the case, reports Pigeon: "Fifty percent of our conversations are about the upstate economy and issues rather than politics."

Another name on hillary's call list is David Alpert, Westchester County's party chairman. As in upstate, Republicans have the electoral edge in the New York City suburbs, which include Westchester, Suffolk, and Nassau Counties. The battle for the burbs can be brutal, and, in the past two decades, Westchester has emerged as an electoral bellwether. As goes Westchester, so goes New York. Well aware of this, the first lady has been doing her homework on both the local issues and the local populace, says Alpert. "I made a comment about our having the fourth-largest city in the state, Yonkers," he recalls, at which point Clinton proceeded to quiz him about the city's ethnic breakdown and the origin of particular groups.

Of course, one cannot run an unofficial exploratory campaign on phone research alone. So, despite the myriad demands of First Ladyhood, Hillary has managed to make several trips to New York in recent weeks. Among the stops on her non-campaign tour: a teachers' convention in Niagara Falls, a public school on Long Island, an awards luncheon for the broadcasting industry, an afl-cio conference in Buffalo, a meeting of the Long Island Women's Agenda, and dinners for the Jewish Child Care Association and the United Jewish Appeal. She has appeared at fund-raisers for Representatives Jerrold Nadler and John LaFalce; future events include rallies or fund-raisers for Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Maurice Hinchey, and Nita Lowey (the candidate-in-waiting should Hillary decide not to run). She has also pledged to tape radio and phone endorsements for a special state Senate election in Rockland County (part of the all-important suburbs).

And so on and so forth. Though the first lady and adviser Ickes remain publicly mum about when she will make her final decision, the breadth and depth of their probing has convinced most political watchers that she plans to go for it. If so, before Democrats are presented with a fait accompli, they need to stop salivating and revisit a couple of key questions about a Hillary candidacy.

The most obvious is whether she could win. Without a doubt, she'd make a formidable candidate. She is intelligent, articulate, driven, a consummate fund-raiser, a veteran campaigner, and a major celebrity. On a more micro level, she knows from Bill's '96 campaign how to court the soccer moms and swing suburbanites who will likely decide the New York race. Her presumptive Republican challenger, however, is no slouch himself. For all his many defects, Mayor Giuliani is a two-term incumbent with a solid record of urban improvement (making him the darling of the suburbs) and a proven vote-getting ability among traditionally Democratic Jews and Latinos. Even Hillary's most ardent admirers agree that a Clinton-Giuliani matchup would be tough. For every positive the first lady brings to the table, there is also a negative, and some of her particular negatives would go a long way toward canceling out some of the mayor's more glaring flaws.

Hillary is a political lightning rod. There's just something about the Clintons that gets Republicans'--and many Democrats'--blood up. Even Ickes acknowledges that "there are people who have made up their minds about her, and I don't think we're going to sway them." Thus, voters' feelings about Giuliani could become a secondary issue. People who don't even like the mayor- -of which there are many--might nonetheless contribute to and pull the lever for him as a slap at Hillary. Already, Giuliani is exploiting the situation. His supporters have set up a "HillaryNo" website, encouraging visitors to send donations to Friends of Giuliani as a way to "send a message to" the first lady. In a recent cnbc interview, Giuliani told Tim Russert that his exploratory committee is pulling in significantly more money than expected, a development he attributed to anti-Hillary sentiment.

She could help Giuliani combat the state's mayoral curse. "There seems to be a jinx on New York City mayors," jokes Bill Mulrow, a state Democratic player for the past 20 years. "There's been no New York City mayor since 1868 who has gone higher than the exalted position of mayor." In part, this is thought to be because upstate voters tend to eye New York City mayors with suspicion. In western New York, says Steve Pigeon, a New York City mayor is considered as much of an outsider as some slob from New Jersey. Throughout upstate, many voters perceive Giuliani as a liberal and darkly recall his endorsement of Mario Cuomo in the 1994 gubernatorial race. Hillary's controversial and liberal reputation, however, helps inoculate Giuliani. "Mrs. Clinton tends to make Rudy Giuliani look like a Republican to Republicans upstate," says Bill Cunningham, a Democratic consultant who ran Moynihan's 1994 campaign. Similarly, Clinton's lack of ties to New York will help Giuliani make the case that he is the candidate more in touch with the state's interests. Even if New Yorkers don't care whether Clinton is a " carpetbagger," her presence will make Giuliani look like an authentic in- stater even to voters north of Manhattan.

She can rival Giuliani on the public unlikability scale. Love him or loathe him, you have to admit that the mayor has a personality problem. He is brittle, obnoxious, pious, and imperious. As a smiling Madonna on the cover of Vogue, Hillary appears the serene antithesis of Rudy. When provoked, however, the first lady can get pretty harsh and self-righteous herself. The race could quickly degenerate into an eye-gouging, name-calling, mud-slinging free-for-all--particularly with the New York tabloids egging both parties on.

All that said, clinton would still stand a solid chance of victory, regardless of who her opponent was. But here is where an even more important question surfaces--the one that, amazingly enough, nobody seems that concerned about. Win or lose, how would Hillary's candidacy affect the Democratic Party nationwide?

In politics, it always makes sense to start with the money. For the New York Senate race, political pros figure that each candidate would need somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million. (The '98 Schumer-D'Amato battle topped $40 million total, but both men had essentially spent the previous six years fund-raising.) No one doubts that Clinton could raise the money, even if she got a late start. The trouble is, if the first lady is raising money for her own campaign, she can't be raising it for other candidates. And that's no small matter. During last year's elections, for example, the first lady attended some 100 events in close to 20 states, bringing in millions of dollars. (Time reported that she pulled in $1 million for Chuck Schumer and $1.6 million for Barbara Boxer.) Her tireless efforts were widely credited, as The Dallas Morning News put it, "with pulling several Democratic chestnuts out of the fire."

Many Democrats say that the broad-based excitement generated by Clinton's run would more than make up for her inability to appear on behalf of individual candidates. In addition to the solid fund-raising base the Clintons enjoy in New York, Hillary admirers nationwide would rush to support the party, says Victor Kovner. But the sword cuts both ways. Forget Giuliani's plans to use Hillary as a fund-raising tool; just wait until Mitch McConnell gets rolling. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, McConnell is charged with drumming up money to distribute to Senate candidates as he sees fit. In the 2000 election cycle--with a no- incumbent presidential race and a heated battle for control of the House-- McConnell might have trouble attracting attention and funding for his races. That all changes with Hillary in the mix. Suddenly, McConnell would have a Ted Kennedy-like demon with which to frighten Republican donors into parting with their cash.

The issue then becomes which party would best exploit the fund-raising bonanza. Even discounting the GOP's consistent superiority in the money department, here is where things could get really sticky for Democrats. The stakes in a Hillary race would likely be too high, a loss too embarrassing. If the race got tight (as all expect), Clinton would inevitably suck up more than her share of resources. This wouldn't be a problem within New York. " This is the only statewide race next year, so we don't have to worry about drawing from other statewide candidates," says Michael Schell, chairman of the state party's executive committee. But it could be a problem for candidates elsewhere. The Democrats face tough, expensive races in Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan next year--which means eleventh-hour assistance could be crucial. Particularly if the Republicans decide to sacrifice Giuliani--who they've never much liked anyway--and funnel all those bonus anti-Hillary dollars into winning lower-profile races, the rest of the Democratic candidates would suffer.

Democrats, of course, insist that there is enough funding for everyone. But the New York party in particular knows that the money race is a zero-sum game. As a key source of political money for PACs and candidates nationwide, the state has spawned its share of funding conflicts in recent years. Party Chair Judith Hope has joked that some staffers call New York the "ATM state" because politicians from all over the country come to make withdrawals. In a January 1998 article on the phenomenon, the Daily News reported, "The parade of politicians seeking handouts here has grown so unwieldy, lawyer Pamela Liapakis went so far as to bring five out-of-state Senate candidates into one room and let donors choose to whom they would give." Noting that the problem was particularly acute for the Democratic Party, "which, compared with Republicans, has relatively few deep-pocketed donors, but a greater concentration of them in New York," the article revealed that Hope had " caused a stir ... when she complained that President Clinton's frequent fund- raising forays into New York for the Democratic National Committee were undermining state Democrats on the eve of campaigns against D'Amato and Gov. Pataki." State party leaders, in turn, adopted a resolution "demanding that the New York party receive 25% of any money that Clinton or anyone else raises in the state for the DNC."

Even if the money race turned out to be a wash, Clinton's candidacy would necessarily deprive other Democrats of an equally valuable commodity: her star power at their events. This, as much as her fund-raising ability, was considered vital to the party's electoral gains in '98. "Her impact was electric," one of Schumer's campaign consultants told Time in the wake of the election. "We trended up every time she was here." The first lady received similar kudos for tipping Tom Vilsack over the top in the Iowa governor's race. "The polls were showing a dead heat, and then she brought this burst of enthusiasm," a Vilsack operative told Time.

As with the fund-raising issue, the party is counting on media attention and energy generated by Clinton's own campaign to boost Democrats' profiles nationally. But having Hillary the glamorous and enigmatic first lady show up at your clambake creates a completely different type of buzz than having Hillary the controversial politico drawing fire on the campaign trail. Right now, the first lady is a sympathetic and beloved figure. But her favorable ratings didn't skyrocket until she stopped being a strong, independent feminist and became a devoted wife. During the Lewinsky scandal, polls put the first lady's favorable ratings in the high sixties. Compare this to 1994, when, following her attempts to reform health care, her favorable ratings were stuck in the forties. It was around this time that the White House decided to start lowering her profile.

The more domestic the first lady has become, the higher her numbers have risen. A March profile in The Washington Post Magazine noted that, according to the Pew Research Center, "57 percent of the American public had a favorable view of Hillary Clinton in January 1997. A little over a year and a half later--just after the president's public confession--that number had risen to 66 percent." According to Pew's Andrew Kohut, the big gains were from "more culturally conservative groups such as older people; less well- educated Americans; and men, especially what Kohut called the 'testosterone set.' And for the first time, women who didn't go to college ... felt exactly the same way about Hillary Rodham Clinton as those who did go to college." These recent converts are the people who disapproved of Hillary Clinton the uppity woman. And they are the people who would be less than impressed if she left her man alone in the White House in order to stump around the New York countryside.

Such a shift is already apparent in New York. Initially, voters were thrilled at the idea of Clinton's candidacy. In a January poll by Marist, respondents preferred Clinton to Mayor Giuliani, 53 to 42 percent. But, as the possibility of a Hillary candidacy has become more real, the numbers have come back down to earth. Last month's poll had her neck and neck with Giuliani, 44 to 43 percent. Similarly, in January, just over a third of respondents thought she shouldn't run, versus more than half in April. If Hillary does become a candidate, and the nation starts looking at her again as a tough, independent political figure rather than as a glamorous, harmless celebrity, public perception nationwide is apt to experience a similar adjustment. At that point, even if Hillary found the time to campaign for other candidates, the payoff wouldn't be the same.

These developments could prove particularly painful for a certain Democratic presidential hopeful. Whatever his virtues, Al Gore is not a warm and fuzzy guy. Up there on the dais for Gore, talking about education, health care, child care, and all those other issues that play so well in middle America, Hillary could save the vice president from attempting the emotive heavy lifting himself. What's more, Gore does not excite the party's base, nor does he poll particularly well with women. (A Pew survey in April showed George W. Bush leading Gore among women voters, 52 to 42 percent.) Hillary could help on both counts. But if she's not available, what prominent woman could step into the breach? Boxer? Feinstein? Tipper? Without Hillary, the Gore campaign could be facing a serious gender crisis.

The vice president's people remain tight-lipped on the subject, while, over in the first lady's camp, Ickes dismisses the idea that her run would affect Gore. "People are gonna vote for Al Gore based on Al Gore, not whether Hillary Clinton is out campaigning for him or not," he asserts. "When you're running for president, it's seldom that others have coattails for you to ride. If a presidential candidate has to rely on others for their coattails, they have real problems." But Gore looks to be facing a tough race. Hillary may not have coattails per se, but everyone seems to agree that she can rev up a crowd. As the campaign season heats up, Gore could use some of that energy-- as could a dozen or so other Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates. As Bill Cunningham told an upstate reporter back in February: "She's a formidable political weapon. Do you want to put that weapon in New York or do you want it on the battlefield?"

In mid-may, while in macedonia visiting the Kosovar refugee camps, Hillary Rodham Clinton sat down for an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. In her dark jacket and crisp, white blouse, a delicate gold cross nestled at her throat, the first lady looked every inch the polished, serious politician. And, for most of the interview, she sounded the part, articulately addressing (or side-stepping) questions about the nato bombing campaign, Americans' isolationist tendencies, and her ongoing efforts to promote women's rights as a U.S. policy objective.

When the subject of her Senate aspirations came up, however, Hillary turned coy. She giggled, she ducked, she dodged, she squirmed in her chair, and I'd almost swear she was blushing beneath that stage makeup. When Amanpour asked if she was any closer to making a decision, Clinton--who could not stop smiling--assured us that she will have much to say on this subject when she's ready. Pressed on the point, the first lady would say only that her decision will come "sooner rather than later." "Summer?" asked Amanpour, giving it one last try. "You know," teased Hillary, "summer's not that far away."

Hear that, Democrats? Time is running out.

''Do you think tonight's the night?" I've been expecting this question all evening, but the man's low, teasing voice nonetheless causes me to catch my breath. He stands only inches from me, a wicked gleam in his eye, a gentle smile of anticipation and expectation on his lips. The hour is late, and in my heart I know that he deserves an answer. After all, we are here, in a posh Manhattan hotel. The wine has been poured, the lights are low,

and soft music perfumes the room around us. But, after a pregnant pause, I face the fact that I cannot give the gentleman what he wants.

I simply have no idea when Hillary Clinton will announce her run for Senate.

Sure. Sure. It's not a done deal yet. There's still the possibility that the first lady will decline to enter the New York race, opting instead to spend her post-White House years as head of a charity, a university, or possibly the World Bank. But, more and more these days, the central question regarding Hillary-for-Senate is not "if" but "when."

Part of the swelling certainty is wishful thinking on the part of Democrats. What began as off-handed flattery by Charlie Rangel, the congressman from Harlem, has ballooned into a sort of mass mania: Hillary must run. She is the party's only hope against New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the likely Republican nominee. Her candidacy will spark a political renaissance, energizing Democrats nationwide. Inspired by her willingness to fight the good progressive fight (even after all she's been through!), Americans, especially young people and women, will rush to get involved. Volunteerism will skyrocket, voter participation will surge, and, most important, wallets will open wide. The race will be tough, but, ultimately, Hillary will be swept into office, where she will reign as far more than a lowly freshman championing upstate dairy farmers. She will "shine a light" on issues of importance to women, children, and the poor. She will be this generation's Bobby Kennedy. Camelot is once again within our grasp. Hillary in 2008!

To be sure, not everyone is quite so gung ho. Some of the first lady's friends are privately counseling against a run, and a handful of Democratic politicians and supporters have publicly expressed concern. The major objection seems to be that, after six years in the inhospitable fishbowl of the White House, Hillary should not subject herself to further abuse. In an April poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, a majority of respondents--including many who said they would vote for HRC--felt that she shouldn't run. Their reasoning, explains director Lee Miringoff, wasn't based on the first lady's electability. It was more along the lines of, "What does she need this aggravation for?"

There have also been rumblings about what a Hillary run might mean for the Clinton legacy. If she and Al Gore won their respective races, who would be the official torchbearer of the "Third Way"? If she lost, would that strip some of the shine from a Gore victory? And what if they both lost? How would that play in the history books for poor Bill?

At the risk of seeming insensitive: Who cares? Political achievements notwithstanding, after everything Bill Clinton has put our nation through, so what if his legacy remains a crusty dress and a contempt citation? Likewise, agonizing over the slings and arrows poor Hillary might suffer on the campaign trail is a monumental waste of energy. She's a big girl. She knows how the game is played. And, here again, why should the American electorate spend even ten minutes trying to fathom the life choices of a woman who, for nearly three decades, has stuck by a guy who long ago sold his moral compass for a piece of ass?

Democrats in particular have bigger, more serious questions to chew over-- the biggest and most serious being: What would a Hillary candidacy really mean for the party? The first lady is said to be contemplating whether she could bear to run and lose. But, even if she ran and won, there's the very real possibility that her candidacy could handicap the party nationwide. She could divert resources from other candidates, politicize their races in ways that don't play well beyond the Upper West Side, and become a rallying point for conservatives still itching to exploit anti-Clinton sentiment. She could, in other words, do precisely what her husband has done time and again-- sacrifice the good of her party and her cause to satisfy her own ambitions.

At this point, most Democrats are too busy praying for a Hillary candidacy to ponder its potential downside. Hillary fever is nowhere more evident than among the party faithful in New York City. My long night at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan was spent, not sipping Chardonnay with a charming suitor, but among 750 Democrats at the first annual Jefferson-Jackson State Committee Dinner. At $150 a plate (or $1,000 if one wished to attend a predinner reception with HRC), the dinner was a tedious affair, primarily an opportunity for county chairs and state politicos to celebrate themselves while raising lots of money. A dozen speakers took to the podium, each armed with talking points and a list of 20 people to thank. At the back of the room, penned behind metal police barricades along with several dozen other media folk, I felt as though I were trapped at a low-budget version of the Oscars, with every key grip and best boy being saluted for his efforts.

But there was only one star in attendance at this ceremony. The first lady, looking very NYC in a smart black suit, sparkled her way through the evening-- bantering with tablemates, delicately sipping iced tea, looking coy at every hopeful mention of her candidacy, and smiling brightly at all those who approached her table to pay tribute. The event's underlying purpose was clearly to show Hillary how much the Empire State loves her and how fabulous it would be to be a part of it, New York, New York (a few bars of which accompanied her entrance into dinner). She stayed long after the last dessert was devoured and the last apparatchik thanked. "A half hour after the event ended, she was still working the line--just like her husband," says Victor Kovner, a big-money Democrat who ran the '96 Clinton-Gore campaign in New York. "If that's not the indicia of a candidate, I don't know what is."

You can't really blame the New York Dems. Whatever her plans, the first lady is shamelessly feeding the speculative frenzy with her candidate-like behavior. There are certain steps one must take if one is serious about running a statewide race in New York--steps far more pedestrian than nibbling grilled salmon at Midtown fund-raisers. One must shuffle off to Buffalo and Plattsburgh, Watertown and Yonkers. There are hands to shake and cheeks to kiss and dozens of local issues on which to bone up. And, thus far, under the tutelage of former White House adviser Harold Ickes, Clinton seems to be making all the right moves.

For starters, the pseudo-candidate has been burning up the phone lines between Washington and New York, working her way down The List. Compiled by Ickes, a veteran of New York politics, The List comprises 200 names of "must call" players around the state, including politicians, party operatives, religious leaders, union leaders, leaders of the African American and gay communities, and so on. Among HRC's strategic circle of phone pals is Erie County Party Chairman Steven Pigeon, whose district includes the city of Buffalo. While Democrats generally fare well on Election Day in New York City, upstate--with its dozens of small, rural counties--traditionally goes Republican. Certain urban centers, such as Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo, are vital to helping Democrats cut into the GOP's margins. Pigeon, therefore, is a good man to know. Among the scintillating local issues on which he (like several other upstate chairmen) has been briefing the first lady: outrageous airfares, the lack of a decent North-South interstate, and the battle with Canada over whether to expand or replace the Peace Bridge, which links Buffalo with Fort Erie, Ontario. More broadly, he says, upstate voters are looking for someone to spotlight the region's stubbornly stagnant economy. Clinton is already on the case, reports Pigeon: "Fifty percent of our conversations are about the upstate economy and issues rather than politics."

Another name on hillary's call list is David Alpert, Westchester County's party chairman. As in upstate, Republicans have the electoral edge in the New York City suburbs, which include Westchester, Suffolk, and Nassau Counties. The battle for the burbs can be brutal, and, in the past two decades, Westchester has emerged as an electoral bellwether. As goes Westchester, so goes New York. Well aware of this, the first lady has been doing her homework on both the local issues and the local populace, says Alpert. "I made a comment about our having the fourth-largest city in the state, Yonkers," he recalls, at which point Clinton proceeded to quiz him about the city's ethnic breakdown and the origin of particular groups.

Of course, one cannot run an unofficial exploratory campaign on phone research alone. So, despite the myriad demands of First Ladyhood, Hillary has managed to make several trips to New York in recent weeks. Among the stops on her non-campaign tour: a teachers' convention in Niagara Falls, a public school on Long Island, an awards luncheon for the broadcasting industry, an afl-cio conference in Buffalo, a meeting of the Long Island Women's Agenda, and dinners for the Jewish Child Care Association and the United Jewish Appeal. She has appeared at fund-raisers for Representatives Jerrold Nadler and John LaFalce; future events include rallies or fund-raisers for Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Maurice Hinchey, and Nita Lowey (the candidate-in-waiting should Hillary decide not to run). She has also pledged to tape radio and phone endorsements for a special state Senate election in Rockland County (part of the all-important suburbs).

And so on and so forth. Though the first lady and adviser Ickes remain publicly mum about when she will make her final decision, the breadth and depth of their probing has convinced most political watchers that she plans to go for it. If so, before Democrats are presented with a fait accompli, they need to stop salivating and revisit a couple of key questions about a Hillary candidacy.

The most obvious is whether she could win. Without a doubt, she'd make a formidable candidate. She is intelligent, articulate, driven, a consummate fund-raiser, a veteran campaigner, and a major celebrity. On a more micro level, she knows from Bill's '96 campaign how to court the soccer moms and swing suburbanites who will likely decide the New York race. Her presumptive Republican challenger, however, is no slouch himself. For all his many defects, Mayor Giuliani is a two-term incumbent with a solid record of urban improvement (making him the darling of the suburbs) and a proven vote-getting ability among traditionally Democratic Jews and Latinos. Even Hillary's most ardent admirers agree that a Clinton-Giuliani matchup would be tough. For every positive the first lady brings to the table, there is also a negative, and some of her particular negatives would go a long way toward canceling out some of the mayor's more glaring flaws.

Hillary is a political lightning rod. There's just something about the Clintons that gets Republicans'--and many Democrats'--blood up. Even Ickes acknowledges that "there are people who have made up their minds about her, and I don't think we're going to sway them." Thus, voters' feelings about Giuliani could become a secondary issue. People who don't even like the mayor- -of which there are many--might nonetheless contribute to and pull the lever for him as a slap at Hillary. Already, Giuliani is exploiting the situation. His supporters have set up a "HillaryNo" website, encouraging visitors to send donations to Friends of Giuliani as a way to "send a message to" the first lady. In a recent cnbc interview, Giuliani told Tim Russert that his exploratory committee is pulling in significantly more money than expected, a development he attributed to anti-Hillary sentiment.

She could help Giuliani combat the state's mayoral curse. "There seems to be a jinx on New York City mayors," jokes Bill Mulrow, a state Democratic player for the past 20 years. "There's been no New York City mayor since 1868 who has gone higher than the exalted position of mayor." In part, this is thought to be because upstate voters tend to eye New York City mayors with suspicion. In western New York, says Steve Pigeon, a New York City mayor is considered as much of an outsider as some slob from New Jersey. Throughout upstate, many voters perceive Giuliani as a liberal and darkly recall his endorsement of Mario Cuomo in the 1994 gubernatorial race. Hillary's controversial and liberal reputation, however, helps inoculate Giuliani. "Mrs. Clinton tends to make Rudy Giuliani look like a Republican to Republicans upstate," says Bill Cunningham, a Democratic consultant who ran Moynihan's 1994 campaign. Similarly, Clinton's lack of ties to New York will help Giuliani make the case that he is the candidate more in touch with the state's interests. Even if New Yorkers don't care whether Clinton is a " carpetbagger," her presence will make Giuliani look like an authentic in- stater even to voters north of Manhattan.

She can rival Giuliani on the public unlikability scale. Love him or loathe him, you have to admit that the mayor has a personality problem. He is brittle, obnoxious, pious, and imperious. As a smiling Madonna on the cover of Vogue, Hillary appears the serene antithesis of Rudy. When provoked, however, the first lady can get pretty harsh and self-righteous herself. The race could quickly degenerate into an eye-gouging, name-calling, mud-slinging free-for-all--particularly with the New York tabloids egging both parties on.

All that said, clinton would still stand a solid chance of victory, regardless of who her opponent was. But here is where an even more important question surfaces--the one that, amazingly enough, nobody seems that concerned about. Win or lose, how would Hillary's candidacy affect the Democratic Party nationwide?

In politics, it always makes sense to start with the money. For the New York Senate race, political pros figure that each candidate would need somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million. (The '98 Schumer-D'Amato battle topped $40 million total, but both men had essentially spent the previous six years fund-raising.) No one doubts that Clinton could raise the money, even if she got a late start. The trouble is, if the first lady is raising money for her own campaign, she can't be raising it for other candidates. And that's no small matter. During last year's elections, for example, the first lady attended some 100 events in close to 20 states, bringing in millions of dollars. (Time reported that she pulled in $1 million for Chuck Schumer and $1.6 million for Barbara Boxer.) Her tireless efforts were widely credited, as The Dallas Morning News put it, "with pulling several Democratic chestnuts out of the fire."

Many Democrats say that the broad-based excitement generated by Clinton's run would more than make up for her inability to appear on behalf of individual candidates. In addition to the solid fund-raising base the Clintons enjoy in New York, Hillary admirers nationwide would rush to support the party, says Victor Kovner. But the sword cuts both ways. Forget Giuliani's plans to use Hillary as a fund-raising tool; just wait until Mitch McConnell gets rolling. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, McConnell is charged with drumming up money to distribute to Senate candidates as he sees fit. In the 2000 election cycle--with a no- incumbent presidential race and a heated battle for control of the House-- McConnell might have trouble attracting attention and funding for his races. That all changes with Hillary in the mix. Suddenly, McConnell would have a Ted Kennedy-like demon with which to frighten Republican donors into parting with their cash.

The issue then becomes which party would best exploit the fund-raising bonanza. Even discounting the GOP's consistent superiority in the money department, here is where things could get really sticky for Democrats. The stakes in a Hillary race would likely be too high, a loss too embarrassing. If the race got tight (as all expect), Clinton would inevitably suck up more than her share of resources. This wouldn't be a problem within New York. " This is the only statewide race next year, so we don't have to worry about drawing from other statewide candidates," says Michael Schell, chairman of the state party's executive committee. But it could be a problem for candidates elsewhere. The Democrats face tough, expensive races in Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan next year--which means eleventh-hour assistance could be crucial. Particularly if the Republicans decide to sacrifice Giuliani--who they've never much liked anyway--and funnel all those bonus anti-Hillary dollars into winning lower-profile races, the rest of the Democratic candidates would suffer.

Democrats, of course, insist that there is enough funding for everyone. But the New York party in particular knows that the money race is a zero-sum game. As a key source of political money for PACs and candidates nationwide, the state has spawned its share of funding conflicts in recent years. Party Chair Judith Hope has joked that some staffers call New York the "ATM state" because politicians from all over the country come to make withdrawals. In a January 1998 article on the phenomenon, the Daily News reported, "The parade of politicians seeking handouts here has grown so unwieldy, lawyer Pamela Liapakis went so far as to bring five out-of-state Senate candidates into one room and let donors choose to whom they would give." Noting that the problem was particularly acute for the Democratic Party, "which, compared with Republicans, has relatively few deep-pocketed donors, but a greater concentration of them in New York," the article revealed that Hope had " caused a stir ... when she complained that President Clinton's frequent fund- raising forays into New York for the Democratic National Committee were undermining state Democrats on the eve of campaigns against D'Amato and Gov. Pataki." State party leaders, in turn, adopted a resolution "demanding that the New York party receive 25% of any money that Clinton or anyone else raises in the state for the DNC."

Even if the money race turned out to be a wash, Clinton's candidacy would necessarily deprive other Democrats of an equally valuable commodity: her star power at their events. This, as much as her fund-raising ability, was considered vital to the party's electoral gains in '98. "Her impact was electric," one of Schumer's campaign consultants told Time in the wake of the election. "We trended up every time she was here." The first lady received similar kudos for tipping Tom Vilsack over the top in the Iowa governor's race. "The polls were showing a dead heat, and then she brought this burst of enthusiasm," a Vilsack operative told Time.

As with the fund-raising issue, the party is counting on media attention and energy generated by Clinton's own campaign to boost Democrats' profiles nationally. But having Hillary the glamorous and enigmatic first lady show up at your clambake creates a completely different type of buzz than having Hillary the controversial politico drawing fire on the campaign trail. Right now, the first lady is a sympathetic and beloved figure. But her favorable ratings didn't skyrocket until she stopped being a strong, independent feminist and became a devoted wife. During the Lewinsky scandal, polls put the first lady's favorable ratings in the high sixties. Compare this to 1994, when, following her attempts to reform health care, her favorable ratings were stuck in the forties. It was around this time that the White House decided to start lowering her profile.

The more domestic the first lady has become, the higher her numbers have risen. A March profile in The Washington Post Magazine noted that, according to the Pew Research Center, "57 percent of the American public had a favorable view of Hillary Clinton in January 1997. A little over a year and a half later--just after the president's public confession--that number had risen to 66 percent." According to Pew's Andrew Kohut, the big gains were from "more culturally conservative groups such as older people; less well- educated Americans; and men, especially what Kohut called the 'testosterone set.' And for the first time, women who didn't go to college ... felt exactly the same way about Hillary Rodham Clinton as those who did go to college." These recent converts are the people who disapproved of Hillary Clinton the uppity woman. And they are the people who would be less than impressed if she left her man alone in the White House in order to stump around the New York countryside.

Such a shift is already apparent in New York. Initially, voters were thrilled at the idea of Clinton's candidacy. In a January poll by Marist, respondents preferred Clinton to Mayor Giuliani, 53 to 42 percent. But, as the possibility of a Hillary candidacy has become more real, the numbers have come back down to earth. Last month's poll had her neck and neck with Giuliani, 44 to 43 percent. Similarly, in January, just over a third of respondents thought she shouldn't run, versus more than half in April. If Hillary does become a candidate, and the nation starts looking at her again as a tough, independent political figure rather than as a glamorous, harmless celebrity, public perception nationwide is apt to experience a similar adjustment. At that point, even if Hillary found the time to campaign for other candidates, the payoff wouldn't be the same.

These developments could prove particularly painful for a certain Democratic presidential hopeful. Whatever his virtues, Al Gore is not a warm and fuzzy guy. Up there on the dais for Gore, talking about education, health care, child care, and all those other issues that play so well in middle America, Hillary could save the vice president from attempting the emotive heavy lifting himself. What's more, Gore does not excite the party's base, nor does he poll particularly well with women. (A Pew survey in April showed George W. Bush leading Gore among women voters, 52 to 42 percent.) Hillary could help on both counts. But if she's not available, what prominent woman could step into the breach? Boxer? Feinstein? Tipper? Without Hillary, the Gore campaign could be facing a serious gender crisis.

The vice president's people remain tight-lipped on the subject, while, over in the first lady's camp, Ickes dismisses the idea that her run would affect Gore. "People are gonna vote for Al Gore based on Al Gore, not whether Hillary Clinton is out campaigning for him or not," he asserts. "When you're running for president, it's seldom that others have coattails for you to ride. If a presidential candidate has to rely on others for their coattails, they have real problems." But Gore looks to be facing a tough race. Hillary may not have coattails per se, but everyone seems to agree that she can rev up a crowd. As the campaign season heats up, Gore could use some of that energy-- as could a dozen or so other Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates. As Bill Cunningham told an upstate reporter back in February: "She's a formidable political weapon. Do you want to put that weapon in New York or do you want it on the battlefield?"

In mid-may, while in macedonia visiting the Kosovar refugee camps, Hillary Rodham Clinton sat down for an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. In her dark jacket and crisp, white blouse, a delicate gold cross nestled at her throat, the first lady looked every inch the polished, serious politician. And, for most of the interview, she sounded the part, articulately addressing (or side-stepping) questions about the nato bombing campaign, Americans' isolationist tendencies, and her ongoing efforts to promote women's rights as a U.S. policy objective.

When the subject of her Senate aspirations came up, however, Hillary turned coy. She giggled, she ducked, she dodged, she squirmed in her chair, and I'd almost swear she was blushing beneath that stage makeup. When Amanpour asked if she was any closer to making a decision, Clinton--who could not stop smiling--assured us that she will have much to say on this subject when she's ready. Pressed on the point, the first lady would say only that her decision will come "sooner rather than later." "Summer?" asked Amanpour, giving it one last try. "You know," teased Hillary, "summer's not that far away."

Hear that, Democrats? Time is running out.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic

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