Will glitter lose its luster in N.Y.?

Politics: Hillary Clinton basks in celebrity, but some raise alarms about her political future.

June 03, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Hillary Rodham Clinton sets foot in New York, she generates the kind of giddy attention usually reserved for starlets at the Oscars -- but these Hollywood moments are not always what they seem.

Already, some New York political operatives are worrying that the victory glitter surrounding the first lady has lost some of its luster.

Clinton, who is steadily moving toward a race for the Senate from New York, hardly seemed concerned yesterday as she basked in the celebrity glow on a daylong visit to New York City.

The trip -- her 10th since rumors started flying this year about her possible campaign -- was marked by chants of "Run, Hillary, Run" at the City College graduation and the embrace of Democrats at a congressional fund-raiser.

Though she could back out at any point, signs are clearly pointing to a campaign. The first lady is expected to announce the formation of an exploratory committee as early as the end of this month -- after her return from 15 days of foreign travel with the president. Earlier this week, she met with three top New York political strategists in preliminary interviews for a possible campaign staff.

Many New York Democrats are cheering her efforts. But behind the scenes, some veterans of state politics are raising alarms about her future.

"She's got real problems in this race," said Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., who worked on campaigns for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the retiring New York Democrat whose seat is up for grabs next year. "At first she looked unbeatable. But it's hard to get New Yorkers to vote for Democrats. Very hard."

While the city remains solidly Democratic, the exodus to the suburbs has created a far more conservative base there. Upstate New York has always been a Republican stronghold, and many Democrats acknowledge that it is no longer enough for a Democratic statewide candidate to win just the city.

Among the other tough questions emerging: Why did the first lady begin with a 20-point lead in the polls when her possible campaign hit the headlines in January, only to lose that edge in what is now neck-and-neck polling with her potential Republican rival, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City?

Pollsters say voters are sounding increasingly skeptical, and surveys show many respondents wondering why she is running for Senate, why she picked New York -- and some even asking why she still stays with her husband.

"She'll have to give a rationale to her candidacy," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant based in New York. "The problem for her will be in the suburbs and Upstate -- what is the argument for the campaign? Why vote for her and not for the guy who tamed the beast of New York City?"

Though Clinton could pull out at any time, her advisers say that the longer she goes without making an announcement, the more likely it is that she is running.

With each passing week, she acts more like a candidate. At the White House on Tuesday, she held a 1 1/2-hour meeting with Hank Morris, the consultant who helped orchestrate Democrat Charles E. Schumer's upset victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato last year.

The first lady also discussed her possible campaign with Dick Riley, once a spokesman for former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch. She also met with Gabrielle Fialkoff, the chief fund-raiser for Peter F. Vallone, the City Council speaker who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year.

While Clinton's spokeswoman, Marsha Berry, said the first lady is "still working through the process," one Democratic operative said yesterday that Clinton is secretly informing top New York politicians that she is indeed running.

In the coming days, the first lady reportedly plans to call New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey, who had been considered the likely Democratic Senate candidate before Clinton entered the scene, to inform Lowey of her intention to run.

While acknowledging the potential pitfalls, many top Democrats are nevertheless telling Clinton that she can win in New York. They say she is diligently doing the necessary spadework in state political circles. And though she remains cautious about her prospects, Clinton associates say, the first lady is starting to listen to her applause meter.

"She is being urged to jump in the race by just about the entire Democratic political establishment in the state of New York -- and she has done her homework," said Tony Bullock, Moynihan's chief of staff. "I think she's been buoyed by the reception she's been getting and encouraged by the people who know New York politics."

But while Clinton has spent hours phoning Democratic professionals -- dialing for potential votes from her recent Memorial Day vacation -- she has yet to schmooze ordinary New Yorkers.

"I have had it with her meeting with politicians, potential staff members, political advisers," said John Marino, the former state Democratic chairman. "I want her to meet with real people real fast. She has to get to a town meeting or a coffee klatch or a county fair."

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