First lady presses closer to New York run

Democrats in state eager for `Hillary-Rudy Show' to begin in earnest

June 05, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It looks like a busy New York summer for Hillary Rodham Clinton -- filled with as many strategically placed pancake breakfasts, county fairs and red, white and blue barbecues as her all-but-official Senate campaign can handle.

The first lady announced yesterday the next giant step in her likely run: She will establish a formal committee to explore a campaign for the seat of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat who is retiring in 2000.

"I'm going to open an exploratory committee in July, and then I'll spend some time -- a lot of time -- in New York listening to people, and I'm looking forward to that," Clinton said yesterday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Clinton's comments were seen as the most explicit signal yet of a candidacy. The formation of an exploratory committee will allow the first lady to raise money, put a staff in place and launch a campaign-style travel schedule across the state. This step would be viewed as essentially a declaration of her candidacy.

To this point, klieg-lighted speeches before cheering crowds and closed-door meetings with pricey strategists have been the norm for the first lady. But advisers say that in this next phase, Clinton will get personal with New Yorkers from all walks of life.

"She'll be meeting, as the phrase goes, `real New Yorkers,' " said Harold Ickes, Clinton's top political adviser, who is beginning to plan city-suburb-upstate trips for the first lady during July and August. "There will be little speechifying and a lot of listening."

Yesterday, Clinton's announcement propelled New York Democrats into high gear, with many of them calling for her to make more personal visits to see the real New York -- from Upper East Side sophisticates to onion farmers upstate -- instead of all those friendly, staged events.

Now the talk is getting down to the gritty stuff of campaigns: money and votes.

"I would get to work on some serious direct mail and telemarketing immediately," said John Marino, a former state Democratic chairman. "She'll raise some substantial money inside New York and outside. Clinton's advisers should start that as soon as they set up a committee."

If such talk is premature, few New York Democrats seem willing to contain it. To them, she's in. Should Clinton turn back now, some say, the Democrats are lost.

Her possible Republican opponent for the Senate seat, New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has started raising money, and his supporters have been skewering Clinton on their campaign Web site for weeks. (One page shows how to scroll a "HillaryNo.Com" banner endlessly across computer screens.)

"The Hillary-Rudy show is definitely a good Broadway hit," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll, which shows Clinton and Giuliani in a statistical dead heat. "Every time Giuliani opens his mouth, he says the word `Arkansas' -- he's saying she's a carpetbagger. What Hillary Clinton needs to do now is ground herself in New York and address issues like how do you spell Schenectady and Poughkeepsie."

A Marist poll in April showed that 52 percent of New Yorkers thought Clinton should not run. Many of them were Republicans. But others were Clinton supporters who did not think she needed the headache of a campaign.

Giuliani has problems of his own. He is likely to face a primary challenge from Rep. Rick A. Lazio, a moderate Long Island Republican with close ties to Gov. George E. Pataki and former Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato. That support from the state GOP establishment could corral votes for Lazio.

For Clinton, the field is wide open. Rep. Nita M. Lowey, who was the likely Democratic nominee before Clinton became interested, called the first lady Thursday to say she was abandoning the Senate race.

The first lady is squeezing in a trip to Upstate New York and Manhattan for two Democratic fund-raisers Wednesday, and then will leave for two weeks of foreign travel in the last half of June.

Meanwhile, Ickes is starting to rev up a fund-raising machine. That operation is likely to draw from party donors inside and outside the state, as well as from women's groups, labor unions and other traditional sources.

Some strategists predict that should both Giuliani and Clinton run, the candidates would run neck and neck for the whole race. While Clinton polls well in heavily Democratic New York City, advisers are working on ways to help her penetrate the conservative suburbs and Upstate New York.

"You have to at least be able to break even in the New York suburbs," said Geoffrey Garin, the pollster for Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat who last year unseated D'Amato in a campaign that cost the candidates a combined $40 million. "And then there are the five urban counties upstate that are really important."

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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