First lady to `listen' for seat in Senate

She will announce exploratory group, start of 5-city tour

July 06, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton officially enters New York Senate politics tomorrow, trying to project the humble appeal of a populist candidate while standing on the pedestal of first ladydom.

Clinton's anticipated announcement of her exploratory committee, which allows her to raise campaign money and hire a campaign staff, will take place in Pindars Corners, N.Y. -- a bucolic town with one flashing light, one fire station and one very powerful Democrat. Clinton will appear alongside retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, basking in the glow of his New York political legacy as she begins a bid for his Senate seat.

The ceremony kicks off four days of campaigning across upstate New York -- a sweep that uses the same take-it-to-the-people approach that characterized Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, with its town hall meetings and back-roads bus tour.

"The 1992 campaign was an extraordinary success and articulated themes that are still powerful and moving today -- and will resonate particularly in a state like New York," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. "This is a good opportunity to present the whys and wherefores of Hillary Clinton for Senate."

Clinton has stood on plenty of campaign podiums, but always as a wife. This time, the president is out of sight -- scheduled to visit a South Dakota Indian reservation. In this rural enclave not far from Cooperstown, N.Y., the first lady will be on her own at the biggest moment in her personal political career.

Her campaign trip, which will include small-group meetings in five cities, is dubbed the "Hillary Rodham Clinton Listening Tour." While on it, she will conduct "listening sessions."

As Clinton returns to New York for more "listening tour" stops this summer, hundreds of reporters from around the country will be there, listening to her listen.

Campaign raises questions

The first lady's first foray into her political campaign does raise some complicated questions -- including the prospect of Clinton vs. Clinton. Last week, she joined a group of New York political and labor leaders who went to the White House to protest a provision in her husband's Medicare plan that, they claimed, would cost New York hospitals millions of dollars.

The president responded, chuckling: "If my wife decides to run for senator from New York, then some of the disagreements that we've had in the past over decisions I've made as president -- she may be constrained to state publicly because they'll be relevant to the future. And that's the way democracy works."

Clinton's campaign is under way, with the paint drying on the walls of her midtown Manhattan offices. The first lady, whose exploratory committee becomes official today with the filing of papers at the Federal Election Commission, has lined up veterans of New York political wars for her staff. She also is actively house hunting and is said to be interested in a $3.8 million estate in North Salem, N.Y.

Clinton is expected to deliver a speech in front of a historic one-room schoolhouse on Moynihan's rolling 800-acre farm. The setting is strategic: Clinton's advisers are likely to make education a campaign cornerstone. Associating with Moynihan does not hurt either: The four-term senator, popular even in conservative upstate New York, has swept the state consistently with little threat from Republicans.

Presidential logistics

While the event attempts to showcase Clinton as a humble listener dropping in for a visit, it has all the logistics of a White House affair. The first lady's staff is busing about 200 reporters to the Moynihan farm, setting up a story-filing center with a network of phone lines and bringing in support staff to keep the day running smoothly.

Clinton's well-orchestrated announcement is not the official confirmation of her candidacy -- that is not expected until next year -- but is considered the surest sign that the first lady is in the race to stay. The only other Democratic contender, Rep. Nita M. Lowey, dropped out last month in deference to Clinton.

Commitment made

With an exploratory committee, the first lady can still balk, but at great risk to Democratic candidates who would enter the race late. If Clinton backs out, "someone would have to put a watch on Nita Lowey to make sure she doesn't murder her," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute and veteran observer of New York politics.

Most polls show the first lady in a dead heat with New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose moderate stands on certain city issues could cost him conservative votes statewide in a primary.

The mayor is expected to face a challenge in the September 2000 primary from Rep. Rick A. Lazio, a Long Island Republican who represents the vote-rich suburbs. Both Republicans claim just less than $3 million in campaign cash in a race where spending is likely to soar to more than $20 million per candidate in the general campaign.

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