Clinton Senate race is a key one to watch

May 21, 1999|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Unlike weathermen, racetrack touts and stock brokers, a columnist should openly admit error. Or a screeching U-turn in opinion.

So a minor confession: I've probably been wrong about Hillary Clinton. The hunch expressed here was that Mrs. Clinton would never run for the open 2000 Senate seat in New York. Nope, her encouragement of the political buzz was an ego-driven publicity stunt. She'd enjoy the tease and dance away.

Having been chilled by Mrs. Clinton's frostiness toward reporters -- or kept 80 feet away -- I couldn't imagine her exposing herself to the Godzilla hammerlocks of the New York press.

Scandalous history

For someone thin-skinned about privacy, why would she willing become a target for a rain of dead cats -- Whitewater, the "lost" law records, Webb Hubbell's tangle, Vince Foster's suicide, the health reform fiasco? And Monica Lewinsky.

Why leap into a mud pit with bruising New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, already snarling that she's a carpetbagging left-winger? Come on, Mrs. Clinton's accustomed to the genteel Chicago suburbs, Arkansas' sluggish mores, White House pomp -- I couldn't see her ordering a pastrami at the Carnegie Deli.

Why give up first lady perks to mix with sweaty commoners of Utica, Albany and the Bronx? Camp out in a New York apartment? And what if she won? Six years of Senate committee droning, her life run by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott?

No, Clinton for Senate didn't make sense. Her husband's one-time gurus agreed. George Stephanopoulos warned, "Do you want to spend your last White House year returning to all the painful episodes?" Dick Morris counseled, "Wait until 2004, run in Illinois when you have a clean bill of health."

Geraldine Ferraro, who had equal hype before a New York Senate downfall, advised, "Write a book, wait until 2004. New York's no walk in the park. The tabloids will eat you alive."

Maybe the conventional thinking, as usual, is muddled. Shift my vote on Mrs. Clinton from "no way" to "leaning yes." Evidence is piling up: The lady's a pol edging toward the starting gate.

It's beyond ritual first lady photo opportunities -- riding a camel with daughter Chelsea in Morocco, comforting Kosovo refugees in Macedonia. She's phoning New York county chairmen. Or schmoozing with spear carriers Harold Ickes and Rep. Charlie Rangel, a New York Democrat. Or stumping to cheers from Manhattan to Niagara.

"She talks like a candidate," said one Democratic chairman. "If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's a duck."

Press relations

Never mind anonymous friends whispering, "She's going for it." Or her press aide Marsha Berry's tantalizing, "She's giving it serious thought." More convincing was Mrs. Clinton the Sphinx giving New York reporters a shot at questions -- a miracle of near biblical terms.

The New York newsies were so startled that they threw five softballs, including the lob: "Why run in New York?" Mrs. Clinton whipped out a sound bite: "Because New York is a microcosm of America. Everything is the biggest, not only the country's most dynamic city but rural areas. New York has everything that is America." Got that on tape, boys?

Granted, Clinton for Senate will be trickier than tottering a tightrope over a pool of piranhas. Legal headaches will nag. After she opens the usual exploratory committee, Mrs. Clinton can raise money. But $10 million? No sweat. But carping's predictable: Taxpayers providing for a first lady's political trips will revive Mr. Clinton's '96 campaign-money ghosts.

Don't forget Vice President Al Gore. Already in trouble, Mr. Gore can't be euphoric about Mrs. Clinton running for the Senate. It sucks oxygen from his 2000 run, keeps the focus on Clinton scandals, makes it harder to be his own man. Pollster John Zogby suspects disaster: "What if they both lose?"

And don't discount New York's fickleness toward celebrities.

Polls once rosy for Mrs. Clinton now tilt toward Mr. Giuliani. His raging at a "carpetbagger" -- although Sens. Robert Kennedy and James Buckley were outsiders -- could damage her bid. "She's not from anywhere," sniffs pollster Lee Miringoff. "She's from TV."

No. 1 fan

But I suspect Mrs. Clinton's No. 1 cheerleader is her husband. President Clinton said last week he asks wannabe candidates, "Why do you want the job? If they can't answer in a sentence or a minute, they're in trouble."

Mrs. Clinton, I suspect, passed. But why would Mr. Clinton be enthused about his wife's political scrimmage? It's her turn? Guilt over the Lewinsky affair? It fits their post-presidential plan to live in New York City?

Burnish the soiled legacy with Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Mr. Gore in the White House? His last chance to campaign? Who knows.

Get ready, Mr. Giuliani. You're in for a rough ride, New York.

Put her in a Mets' cap, order bagels and lox, watch her play stickball. Mrs. Clinton's running. Unless I'm wrong again.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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