Get Ready To Rumble

It began as a verbal pep pill--New York Rep. Charles Rangel telling Hillary Clinton during the depths of her Monica misery that she should run for the Senate from New York. The First Lady laughed and waved him off--she'd never lived in New York--but the idea took root and grew in the media hothouse, and by last week the first staffers were moving furniture into a tattered office suite across Seventh Avenue from Macy's that will serve as campaign headquarters. A couple of other tenants came by to ask if this meant they could no longer get in and out of their building. The First Lady's moving in! The woman who ties up traffic for blocks when she comes to town! No, no, they were assured. This was not going to be that kind of campaign.

Maybe not. Maybe "Hil" (as the New York tabloids call her) will succeed in her goal of traveling light and truly getting to know the people of New York. Maybe the campaign will be quietly debated on "the issues." Maybe after she announces her "exploratory committee" this week at the farm of retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan the whole thing will die down and the press corps will get a chance to cover something else for the 70 weeks between now and Nov. 7, 2000. Maybe. And maybe Hillary Clinton is really a shrinking violet and Rudy Giuliani is a teddy bear and New Yorkers are all warm and cuddly and love each other.

More likely, this will prove to be the most dramatic race for the U.S. Senate since Abraham Lincoln lost to Stephen A. Douglas in Illinois in 1858--or at least since Robert F. Kennedy, another candidate savaged as a carpetbagger, beat Kenneth Keating in New York in 1964. It will certainly be the strangest, not least because a bruising GOP primary could mean that Hillary faces someone other than Giuliani, or even a three-way contest.

Then there are the First Family Follies. Already, Mrs. Clinton is distancing herself from her husband's Medicare proposals, which cut reimbursements to New York hospitals. And Hillary has been so busy house hunting in Westchester County that last week she skipped a special Broadway benefit performance of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" attended by the president. A wise choice, perhaps, considering that the four-hour play concerns a man who kills his wife because he can't take the guilt he feels when she constantly forgives his philandering.

Giuliani's philosophy seems to be to attack early and often. He denied Tina Brown's new magazine the use of city property to throw a party because Hillary is rumored to be on the first cover; he threatened to hold a Clinton-bashing press conference at the "Whitewater River" in Arkansas (there's actually no such place). "It's going to be an extraordinarily nasty race," says William Bratton, the former New York City police commissioner who helped Giuliani reduce crime before the mayor ousted him. "He will very quickly go for the jugular." If Giuliani runs, that is. "He has not decided to do it yet," says Deputy Mayor Randy Levine, a close adviser.

But how can he resist? The campaign's first political football is... baseball, the mayor's favorite sport. Giuliani attended a Chicago Cubs game last week to emphasize the true team loyalties of the First Lady, a Chicago native who recently made a lame claim to being a lifelong Yankee fan. "Where was she when Roger Maris hit his 61st home run? Probably in Illinois somewhere," Rudy gibed. Hillary, perhaps not realizing she has lost this inning, planned a campaign stop this week in Cooperstown. A new Quinnipiac College poll shows the First Lady leading by just 46 to 44 percent, a statistical tie. She crushes Giuliani in the city he has ruled for six years, but he wins strongly upstate and in the suburbs, where many voters think of Giuliani as their "Saturday night mayor"--the man who made it safe to venture into the city again for weekend fun.

Hillary enters the campaign with one big advantage beyond her celebrity. While she's running unopposed in her party's primary, Giuliani almost certainly won't be so lucky. The smart money says he'll face a tough GOP primary challenge in September of 2000 from one or perhaps two Long Island congressmen. Rep. Rick Lazio is a young, presentable, pro-choice, pro-impeachment Republican who is getting quiet help from New York Gov. George Pataki and former senator Al D'Amato, both of whom have feuded with the difficult mayor for years.

National Republicans want the state GOP to unite around Giuliani and avoid a bloody primary. Fat chance. In fact, some worry that Giuliani on the ticket could actually hurt the GOP. "He will drive the largest turnout of minorities in the history of New York," said one top Republican insider, reflecting on the mayor's unpopularity in nonwhite New York. "This would hurt George W.'s ability to carry this state. Here's a presidential candidate trying to reach out to women and Hispanics. Rudy takes all those pluses away from you."

Lazio, by contrast, would campaign in the more friendly Bush mode. He has little name recognition now, but financial reports released last week show Lazio has already raised as much money as Giuliani--about $3 million--and traveled to more than half of New York's 62 counties with his family since January.

And Rudy has something else working against him. In 1994, Giuliani supported Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo against Pataki. This is old news to everyone except the upstate Republican activists who dominate in primaries. "It was a bitter pill to swallow," says Kieran Mahoney, a GOP consultant. Lazio says he'll also use Giuliani's support for an unpopular commuter tax against him in the suburbs.

Another wrinkle: Giuliani and Lazio might split the Italian-American vote in the primary--and leave the door open for Rep. Peter King, an Irish-American, anti-abortion conservative. Despite being one of only four House GOP members to oppose impeachment, King is ideologically closest to the typical New York GOP primary voter.

To make matters even more complicated, the Liberal and Conservative parties are often a factor in New York politics; former senators D'Amato and James Buckley were both elected in three-way races. Giuliani is assured of Liberal Party backing if he wants it, but Lazio and King are each more likely to get the Conservative Party nod. This means that even if Giuliani wins the GOP primary, he could be in trouble if Lazio or King gets tapped to run on the Conservative ticket. "If you have Lazio as a Conservative, Rudy as a Republican, and Hillary as a Democrat, that's the doomsday machine. It kills the Republicans on contact," says Jay Severin, a GOP consultant in New York. So the Democrats actually prefer to face Rudy. Should Lazio upset Giuliani in the GOP primary, he would be a fresh-faced giant-killer, ready to surprise Hillary, too.

Even the Hillary-as-carpetbagger theme might work better for someone other than Giuliani. In 1964, when he was a young liberal Democrat at Manhattan College, Giuliani wrote an article for the student paper calling the carpetbagging charges against Robert F. Kennedy "ridiculous."

Of course, some of the RFK comparisons don't help Hillary's cause. Kennedy at least spent some of his youth in New York; Hillary did not. And Kennedy won on the coattails of a huge Lyndon Johnson landslide that year. By contrast, Hillary must cope with "Clinton fatigue," an impatience in some quarters to get the whole bunch offstage.

Most important, New Yorkers are only now meeting Hillary Clinton, The Candidate. The last elected office she campaigned for herself was president of the student government at Wellesley in 1968. (She won.) She's a quick study--but New York is a big place. In Binghamton recently she was unfamiliar with mag-lev--a high-tech rail system important to the region. Giuliani is not so popular upstate, either; "He's the mayor of Sodom and Gomorrah to them," says pollster Maurice Carroll. But it's Hillary who has the most to prove.

"The most important thing is her rationale," says former governor Cuomo. "She has to be able to answer the question of why she should represent New York. I'm sure she can, but she hasn't yet." To do so convincingly, "she must get out of 'the bubble'," says New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, referring to the protective cocoon that surrounds the First Lady. "You can't communicate from a motorcade."

While her skin is thicker now, Mrs. Clinton's longstanding habits of defensiveness may be hard to break. To prepare, campaign advisers have quizzed former White House staffers about which old scandals could come back to haunt her. There are plenty--from firings in the White House travel office to the missing billing records. The good news for the Clinton camp is that most New York voters don't seem to care about any of it--as long as she keeps her cool.

If the race is about their records, Rudy wins. If it's about education and child care, Hillary has a better shot. If it's about temperament and personality and silly media flaps, then maybe, just maybe, New York will send neither Rudolph Giuliani nor Hillary Rodham Clinton to the U.S. Senate next year.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI
Current Job:
GOP mayor of New York City
Odds of Running: Won't say
Advantages: Helped bring New York City back from the brink; automatic name recognition; plenty of money; backing of national GOP; pro-choice position has broad appeal in general election; take-no-prisoners campaign style
Disadvantages: Alienated from state GOP; unfamiliar to upstaters; police-brutality incidents cast shadow on crime crackdown; pro-choice position has limited appeal in GOP primary; take-no-prisoners campaign style
If He Loses Primary: Will never achieve his dream of making it to the White House

PETER KING
Current Job: GOP congressman from Long Island
Odds of Running: 50-50
Advantages: Closest ideologically to GOP rank and file; staunch conservative record; pro-life view plays well in Republican primary; quirky sound bites perfect for television news shows
Disadvantages: Right-wing stances on issues alienate moderate voters; little support from Republican honchos D'Amato and Pataki; could find himself marginalized as a right-to-life candidate; low name ID; no money yet
If He Loses Primary: Could be a Conservative Party candidate

RICK LAZIO
Current Job: GOP congressman from Long Island
Odds of Running: 95 percent
Advantages: A Yuppie D'Amato without the mean streak; plays well with women and environmentalists; gets backing of Rudy's enemies; already raised as much money as Giuliani
Disadvantages: May be too bland for prime-time New York politics; might not prevail in pro-life, pro-gun primary; doesn't attract swarms of reporters the way Hil and Rudy do
If He Loses Primary: Could be in good position to run for governor of New York

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