Some Democrats terrified that their bloody primary campaign will doom them in November are floating a consolation prize for Hillary Clinton: Governor of New York.
The travails of New York Gov. David Paterson have opened up a new potential career path for Clinton, according to well-informed Democratic Party insiders who refused to allow their names to be used when discussing contingencies. They want her to consider the option if she concludes after the April 22 Pennsylvania primary that she cannot overtake Barack Obama for the party's presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton, while fully committed to continuing her presidential campaign, was said to be open to discussing the idea, while Bill Clinton rejected it out of hand.
With former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani now reported by the New York Post to be weighing a race for governor, voters could see a Clinton-Giuliani matchup after all.
Paterson, a former state senator and lieutenant governor, succeeded Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was forced to resign earlier this month when he was caught in a prostitution ring. A legally blind African-American with plenty of friends in Albany, Paterson has admitted to extensive drug use when he was young and to having had several extra-marital affairs, including one with a New York state employee. The governor has denied using taxpayer money for the affairs, but new rumors are swirling around the scandal-weary state capital.
In the event that Paterson had to resign, the New York State constitution calls for a gubernatorial election this November. Clinton would be the favorite in that contest if she were interested. Were a politically-wounded Paterson to serve out Spitzer's term, which ends in 2010, Clinton would no doubt be a strong potential candidate to succeed him.
Under the scenario sketched out by the insiders, serving two years as governor would give Clinton the executive experience to become the prohibitive favorite for the 2012 Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton believes that Barack Obama may well lose this year to John McCain, who would be 75 in 2012 and a possible one-term president. Clinton would arguably be better positioned to replace McCain in the White House as a governor than as a senator.
The Senate might not be as attractive a job for Clinton as it once was, given that she would be surrounded by Democratic colleagues she believed betrayed her by supporting Obama (among them: Sens. Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, Claire McCaskill, Ben Nelson, Chris Dodd and Bob Casey). If Obama is elected president, she would have to carry water for him in the Senate. If McCain wins, it would be more of the same for Clinton in opposition to a Republican president. Being governor of New York might be preferable even to being Senate majority leader-another scenario being floated about Clinton's future.
Even if the gubernatorial gambit doesn't materialize, it reflects deep concern among Democrats about how to extricate Clinton from what appears to be a losing campaign without doing further damage to the party. Should she handily win all 10 remaining primaries, which even her campaign does not expect, she would still trail in pledged delegates and the popular vote (excluding Florida and Michigan, where re-votes are now unlikely).
The best exit strategy for her, say some Democratic superdelegates who aren't talking for the record, would be to suspend her campaign after winning Pennsylvania. (George H.W. Bush ended his 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan after defeating him in the Michigan primary). That way, Hillary would go out on a high note-higher still if it was accompanied by reports that she could be headed for Albany. For now, Clinton has rebuffed that advice and said publicly that she will stay in the race even if she wins Pennsylvania only narrowly. (If she loses Pennsylvania, by all accounts she's out).
Becoming governor of New York might not be a cakewalk. "Oh, great, so she's going to get in the way of two African-American politicians now?" said one Washington, D.C. Democratic operative. "I don't think so." Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, a strong Clinton supporter who believes she can still win the presidency, said he thought it was a bad idea: "I'd advise her to stay in the Senate."
Clinton campaign aides scoff at the gubernatorial trial balloon and say they expect her to play through to the end of the primaries in June. "This is the first I've heard of it," says Howard Wolfson, Hillary's spokesman.
"Every time the punditocracy says otherwise, she happens to win," says another campaign aide, declining to comment on the record. "Hillary believes, and so do I, that she'll be president this year. It may be an alternative universe, but it's the one they [the Clintons] live in."