Relaxed Hillary Clinton on get-acquainted swing

She tours upstate N.Y., holds `talk show' event

July 08, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WEST DAVENPORT, N.Y. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton began her Senate campaign yesterday on Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's vast farmland, trying to take her own place on New York's political landscape with the blessing of the state's most influential Democrat.

Introduced by Moynihan in the tiny upstate hamlet of Pindars Corners, Clinton kicked off the exploratory phase of her all-but-declared Senate run -- a highly anticipated campaign that would make her the only American first lady to run for public office.

True to candidate form, she seemed relaxed and offered plenty of smiling, nodding and on-the-spot empathizing. She told a dairy farmer that "there is no harder job than being a farmer," assured a mother studying to be a social worker that "social work is more important now" and promised educators that children are "what I care about more than anything."

Though a dozen Secret Service agents kept a close eye on her, Clinton had her motorcade van stop yesterday morning near Binghamton, where supporters with signs had gathered.

Throughout the day, she flip-flopped between first candidate and first lady, praising a little girl's sun dress at a highway rest stop one minute and a school-funding proposal by "the president" the next.

This was a moment Clinton called her own, one focused on her agenda and, it would seem, her ambition.

"What's new to me is being on this side of the microphone and talking for myself and talking on behalf of what I believe," Clinton told more than 100 reporters and a handful of spectators from the one-lane road that cuts through Moynihan's 900-acre farm.

On a day heavy with positive spin, Clinton's staffers failed to note the name of the road she stood in -- McDougal -- an unfortunate reminder of James and Susan McDougal, the Clintons' business partners in the messy Whitewater scandal.

Wearing a navy pantsuit and displaying the resolute smile of a woman used to being scrutinized, Clinton held a short question-and-answer session with reporters. She dodged questions about Whitewater -- "I think we've moved beyond all of it" -- and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

`A lot to tell me'

Asked whether she would gain a "sympathy vote" from New York residents because of the Lewinsky affair, Clinton replied simply, "I think they'll have a lot to tell me about what they think about me."

Earlier she said with a laugh, "I've actually enjoyed my time in the White House -- I know that that may cause some real concern."

As to her outsider status, she was more expansive, explaining that when talk arose about a Senate bid, she thought it was a "very strange idea." She said she hoped New Yorkers might recognize -- and ultimately respect -- the chutzpah she showed in crashing their state.

In rural upstate New York, where many conservative voters are likely to be suspicious of her motives for running, she met the critics head-on.

"I think it's a very fair question, and I fully understand people raising it," she said. "I think I have some real work to do to get out and listen and learn from the people of New York and demonstrate that what I'm for is maybe as important -- if not more important -- than where I'm from."

`Let the expert speak'

But when it came to a question of practical policy in New York -- a trade issue involving a new bridge between the state and Canada -- she demurred, turning to Moynihan to answer. "Well, I'm going to let the expert speak on that," she said.

Her likely Republican rival in the race, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City, has attacked her as a bogus New Yorker. Yesterday, Giuliani grabbed some of the media spotlight by threatening to sue the utility Con Edison after a Manhattan blackout. Another story also followed the mayor yesterday -- his gaffe in telling reporters that he had spent last weekend in Monroe County, N.Y. Giuliani had actually taken his minivacation in Monroe, N.Y. -- in a different section of the state.

Public opinion polls show Clinton and Giuliani neck-and-neck. Neither has announced an official campaign, though both are raising money. Today, Clinton will continue her campaign swing in Utica, with a stop for lunch in the aptly named town of Clinton.

The first lady chose what could be crucial territory in this race -- upstate New York -- to launch her campaign swing, which she has dubbed a listening tour. It is Republican country, and, along her motorcade route, small clusters of protesters gathered with posters reading, "Listen Hillary: Go Home" and elephant-shaped signs imploring "Rudy!"

Maureen Somerville, a homemaker with eight children in Oneonta, summed up her sentiments in a poster hoisted above her head: "New York Wants Leadership and Success -- Not Lies and Scandals."

Much of Clinton's day kept her out of contact with such critics.

She began the morning by meeting for a half-hour with Moynihan, who is retiring from the Senate and whose seat Clinton hopes to capture next year, in the 1856 one-room schoolhouse on Moynihan's property.

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