Clinton borrows campaign style, ideas from husband

Some listeners wowed, but others worry whether she knows state issues

July 09, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

UTICA, N.Y. -- As she explores her first-ever run for office, Hillary Rodham Clinton is using the political advantages of her years in the White House to propel her prospective Senate campaign.

Gone is the squeamishness over the promise of a "two for the price of one" Clinton presidency that fueled so much criticism of her during President Clinton's first term. Instead, in visits around upstate New York this week, the first lady has boasted about her husband's administration -- mentioning White House projects she helped shape and even venturing back into the loaded issue of her ideas on health care reform.

Clinton comes to New York a precandidate -- ready with perfectly timed personal anecdotes, snappy state-specific statistics and enough composure to smile and wave along a road scattered with unfriendly signs.

This week, when she stood before an armada of reporters and announced the start of her unofficial candidacy for the seat of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat who is retiring, she called her campaign a new experience. But yesterday, her 6 1/2 years at the White House, coupled with a lifetime in the political realm, was not just evident, it formed a principal part of her pitch.

"My husband and others in Washington think what we need is to try to empower physicians more," she said during a chat with doctors at Bassett Healthcare in Cooperstown.

"Just out of curiosity," she asked retirees to resounding applause a few hours later at the East Side Senior Center in Utica, "how many of you have followed and are aware of the president's proposal to use the surplus for Social Security?"

"We've seen the president propose this three years in a row," she said to Oneonta educators Wednesday, referring to a schools funding plan. "It's a national issue."

All politics may be local. Yet as Clinton seeks to define herself as a candidate, national politics will do fine, too. In two days of campaigning, Clinton has addressed health care, education reform, social security, crime and the economy.

Potential embarrassments

The technique has wowed some audience members but has caused some potential embarrassments. Among them: contradicting her husband and the administration she praises.

Yesterday, the press corps following her was buzzing about a news report quoting Clinton as saying she recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and supports moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv -- a position praised by many pro-Israel New Yorkers.

That stance is often adopted by presidential candidates, as it was by Bill Clinton in 1992. But as recently as this spring, the president opposed such a move for fear it could sabotage the peace process with the Palestinians. The first lady's statement flew in the face of the president's stance.

But she seems to campaign far more like her husband than to deviate from his battle-tested ways.

Yesterday's staged events demonstrated the sort of public empathizing for which the president is known. At the morning health care discussion, Clinton showed concern as a dairy farmer described her brush with the health care system after she was trampled by a bull last fall.

There was more Bill Clinton-style campaigning. In the afternoon sun outside a country inn in Clinton, N.Y., where the first lady ate lunch, she repeatedly thrust both hands into an eager crowd. A throng of supporters held handmade signs, including "It Takes A Village" and "New York Needs Hillary," and Clinton stretched as far as she could to reach them.

Her experience in national campaigns, along with her national exposure, are among her strengths as she prepares for her likely Senate rival, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. But such a background can cut both ways: Giuliani has energized his supporters by attacking Clinton as an outsider with no New York roots.

Many New York Republicans have viewed her candidacy in New York as a mere springboard to an eventual run for president. But while Giuliani has not vowed to serve a full six-year Senate term if elected, Clinton did so yesterday in a conversation with reporters.

For her Senate campaign, Clinton noted yesterday how valuable her husband could be, telling reporters that she would welcome his help on the campaign trail.

"If I am a candidate, I certainly do want him to campaign in New York, and you know, that is something that will happen down the road," she said. "But he knows a lot about New York, and he has done very well in New York."

Clinton has demonstrated her poise as a candidate in the spotlight. At the event at the senior center in Utica yesterday, she kept jotting notes and questioning and answering a group of seniors while a band of vocal protesters could be heard chanting, "Go home, Hillary," on the street outside.

Specifics wanted

Some participants in the health care discussion yesterday thought her national perspective on some issues came at the expense of a state-specific discussion.

"I don't know that she's been in and around New York enough to know what the rural issues are, and that does concern me," said Ruth Blackman, a registered nurse at Bassett Healthcare, which serves many farmers.

But many inside the building said they admired her stature as first lady and her ability to talk credibly about a range of national issues.

"I think national issues are fine -- when you're talking about Social Security and pensions, those are national issues, but they mean a lot to New York," said Mildred Ficaro. "Now, I've got to go get her autograph."

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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