Hillary Makes Her Move

Her Senate campaign hadn't even formally begun, and already it was rumored to be in trouble. Hillary Clinton's poll numbers were dropping, her Washington-based advisers were under fire from local pols and--worst of all--fund-raising was said to be slowing. Her latest troubles began with The Kiss: the diplomatically correct, but politically disastrous, embrace of Palestinian First Lady Suha Arafat, who had charged Israelis with poisoning Arab children. Seemingly shaken by the response in New York--where it is assumed that a candidate who fails to seize any opportunity to defend Israel can't possibly be serious--Clinton lay low while traveling for a week, giving Republicans the chance to spread rumors that she was losing heart for what promised to be a brutal race. And even some liberal Democrats, her natural allies, thought her campaign was a loser. City Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge urged Hillary to drop out while there was "still plenty of time to field a strong candidate."

The First Lady had to do something fast to show she was serious about New York politics. In a prearranged exchange with one of her allies, teachers union president Randi Weingarten, she reassured her supporters with four simple words last week: "I intend to run." And if that meant moving away from her husband and the White House into what she called "my" house in the suburbs of New York City, she seemed ready to do that. Now the hard part starts. The campaign is moving beyond her "listening tour," spent discovering what New Yorkers think about education, health care and Social Security. From now on it's going to be serious business--and Rudy Giuliani, her certain opponent, has barely begun campaigning.

Of course, technically Hillary still hasn't announced her candidacy. That will come early next year, aides say, in a setting that will allow her to expound on the issues, since all the political suspense will have been drained from it. Last week's announcement was meant to do two things--to give local reporters, whom she was meeting for the first time since the Arafat debacle, another story to write, and to reassure potential campaign donors that they weren't wasting their money. The campaign is due to file its first financial reports at the end of December, and the Giuliani forces were whispering that she'd banked a staggering $10 million--which would make her look bad if she came up with anything less. Clinton's camp will say only that the figure is "lower than the mayor is trying to make it."

Giuliani, whose combative nature isn't especially well suited to begging for donations, is assumed to be behind in the money race, although he will have the formidable state Republican machinery behind him. The mayor, too, has put off his formal announcement, deferring some of the arcane questions endemic to New York politics, such as whether to accept the Conservative or the Liberal Party endorsement. Having patched up relations with Gov. George Pataki--under pressure from George W. Bush, who didn't want his party feuding going into next year's election--Giuliani was free to enjoy the spectacle of Democrats' undercutting one another in the press, while keeping to his strategy of running as The Mayor Who Abolished Crime in New York.

Clinton's campaign officials pronounced themselves jubilant at her bold response to the rumors. "This was the day Hillary Clinton established her own strength and toughness," an aide boasted--although she could hardly be said to be walking into the lion's den at a teachers union conference. On Saturday Clinton's spokesman, Howard Wolfson, announced that the campaign committee was dropping the word "exploratory" from its title, "to reflect the fact that Hillary is running." And sources said the campaign was about to bring on an experienced New York political operative with close ties to the Cuomo family, state HUD director Bill de Blasio.

He will need all the New York street smarts he can muster to overcome the skepticism of local Democrats. Eldridge's defection was shocking, and elicited a swift phone call from Clinton campaign guru Harold Ickes. "He said, 'It's going to be a very difficult campaign'," Eldridge recalled. She responded: "It's going to be a disastrous campaign."

Ickes got the same message in a meeting with the ubiquitous power broker the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton thinks Clinton's team is deluded in relying on the old-Democrat coalitions of labor unions and political clubs, a strategy that Giuliani has already twice defeated in mayoral elections. "What would make you think you can turn out the black vote for a lady from Arkansas, if you couldn't turn it out for [former mayor] David Dinkins?" he told Ickes. Sharpton alluded to the campaign's mishandling of the controversial pardon President Clinton extended to jailed Puerto Rican nationalists. When Republicans called it a ploy to win Puerto Rican votes for Hillary, she felt compelled to show her independence by denouncing the pardons. That, in turn, managed to alienate many of her natural supporters among Puerto Rican New Yorkers, such as influential Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano. "They didn't understand that in the new New York, Serrano is a player--he has to be dealt with," said Sharpton.

That debacle, like the Arafat disaster, demonstrated that Hillary's natural advantage, her high profile, comes with the corresponding disadvantage of having to balance her roles as candidate and First Lady. Giuliani's refusal to discuss his own marriage has given commentators little to say on the subject, but Hillary cannot hope to be so lucky. This week the talk shows will likely be dominated by the publication of Gail Sheehy's biography "Hillary's Choice." Sheehy, best known as the author of "Passages," is not hostile to Clinton. But her distinctive brand of psychopolitical babble ("Hillary is one of those special women who feels a surge of post-menopausal zest and opens up to their full power in their Flaming Fifties") probably isn't the prism through which a Senate candidate would choose to be viewed. And it will inevitably serve to remind voters of the question the First Lady so abhors: "How on earth does she stay married to Bill Clinton?" Campaign aides won't comment on the record, but unofficially they denounced the book as both inaccurate and irrelevant. Still, Hillary's need to establish residence in New York is already calling attention to her domestic arrangements. Assuring reporters that "I'm going to be moving into my house as soon as the Secret Service tells me that it's ready" leaves uneasily open the question of where her husband plans to live after January 2001.

On the other hand, her supporters take heart from the belief that if she survived her marriage, the impeachment trial and everything else that's been thrown at her, how tough can Giuliani be? History may show, one said hopefully, "that the last seven years were basic training for a New York Senate race." But as any number of past candidates can testify, nothing is basic training for a New York Senate race.

Hillary Makes Her Move | News