Idea of Clinton-Giuliani race excites passions in New York

But neither has declared for 2000 Senate contest

February 28, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Over pancakes and eggs at the El Greco diner in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay, four pals usually argue about everything from the ponies to the weather. The one thing they do seem to agree on is how much fun it is to flirt with the waitresses.

But one morning last week, the subject took a detour -- New York politics and the Senate campaign in 2000. The prospect that Hillary Rodham Clinton will run -- possibly facing Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in a race for retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's seat -- was cause for another debate.

"If Hillary runs for the Senate, I will not walk to the polls," said Norman Root, 64, a former police officer. "I will run."

Maybe one second passed before Biagio "Boz" DiSalvatore, a 46-year-old Off Track Betting clerk, countered: "I hate feminists. She's power-hungry."

Root took his toothpick out of his mouth, used it like a pointer and replied, "Then you're the only one in New York City who's not going to vote for her."

His remark suggests a popular view: that aliberal New York City would not only embrace a Hillary Clinton candidacy, but would propel the first lady to a statewide victory in 2000.

Upstate New York is often more friendly to Republicans. But given Hillary Clinton's national star power, that bloc could just as easily swing to her. That is, if she -- and he -- actually run.

Clinton has yet to announce, but she continued to meet with New York political advisers last week. Giuliani, a Republican, repeatedly hints, with a Cheshire-cat grin, that he would relish a high-wattage, New York-style down-and-dirty race against the first lady. So far, he has refused to commit to a bid.

The possibility of such a race has put know-it-all New York in a buzz. From Russian neighborhoods in "Little Odessa" to shops selling Santeria paraphernalia in Spanish Harlem, from Wall Street's canyons to SoHo's precious pricey spaces, city dwellers are already taking sides. Their opinions are as hard to miss as a wide-eyed tourist on the subway.

Polls show New York City overwhelmingly in favor of a campaign by the first lady. A Time/CNN poll last week showed Clinton favored over Giuliani in the city by 68 percent to 28 percent. Many Democrats who voted for Giuliani for mayor said they would not favor him for the Senate against a compelling Democratic alternative.

In the survey, Clinton's solid city support carries the state for her, even though Giuliani polls higher in the suburbs and upstate.

Still, some point out that in his two mayoral victories, Giuliani won with the help of Democrats, and he remains highly popular, particularly among more affluent voters.

Even in what would be Hillary territory in the city, voters are not speaking in one unified voice. While some praised the first lady as an independent thinker with a powerful political presence, many others saw the Illinois native as an outsider with unbridled ambition and little sense for the needs of New Yorkers.

"It would make as much sense for somebody to sponsor Gorbachev for Senate as it would Hillary -- she's no New Yorker," said Harvey Stoneburner, a 69-year-old Brooklynite who has little patience for Clinton or her husband. "She has politics? The whole bunch of them are opportunists, the people in that White House."

At the tip of Brooklyn, Russian immigrants congregate in Little Odessa, where grocery stores sell bottled water from Ukraine and residents walk along the waterfront in thick fur hats. Here, being from somewhere else is part of being a New Yorker.

"I live here only four years, so what is the difference?" asked Raisa Mesonzhnik, a 59-year-old in Sheepshead Bay who pieced her sentences together with a computerized Russian-English dictionary stowed in her shopping bag. "She buys her apartment, and then she is New Yorker."

Lately, Clinton is schooling herself on the rough-and-tumble New York politics that have pulverized other candidates. The first lady met last week with Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat who will likely run for the Senate if Clinton does not, and Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, who organizes Senate campaign spending for the Democrats. Wednesday, she begins a two-day visit to New York for speaking engagements and appearances at local schools.

The first lady also has met with a national congregation of rabbis. The meeting came after Giuliani criticized her previously stated support for Palestinian statehood, and his comment resonated with New Yorkers, many of whom are staunchly pro-Israel.

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