Hillary Clinton proves main attraction in N.Y.

First lady delivers campaign-style pitch

August 31, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Along with the live killer-bear show, the best-in-fair guinea pig, the Caribbean high-dive team, the "Dough-Licious" fritters and the cooking-with-cheese demonstration at the New York State Fair yesterday, there stood another main attraction: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The all-but-declared Senate candidate spent a breezy day in upstate New York doing what any hopeful New York politician would do. She threw herself into a sea of nearly 100,000 folks at the fair, offering her best campaign-style pitch as she went.

There may not be as many Democrats as Republicans in the conservative rural region that is home to the fair, but it hardly mattered. Even those critical of the Clintons ("I don't want to see her; I'm just trying to get to the steamed clams," said Amy Kuzak) were jamming the midway to glimpse the first family.

After attending an annual political luncheon conducted by state Comptroller Carl McCall, the president, first lady and daughter, Chelsea, toured a handful of exhibits for nearly two hours. Surrounded by reporters, they stopped at a crafts show, sipped ice tea at an outdoor chicken stand and visited a dairy products building, featuring lots of ice cream and a rock video about milk.

Along the way, the Clintons snarled traffic, lured crowds and collected gifts of everything from fudge to a local specialty called cheese curds.

This was the first visit by the almost-candidate to upstate New York with her husband in tow, and he helped lure enormous crowds. As the Clintons began the upstate leg of their vacation, throngs of spectators lined their route, from the airport to the fair to the streets leading to their borrowed waterfront home in upscale Skaneateles.

There, the Clintons will finish their vacation with two presidential golf outings, a couple of fund-raisers and relaxation by aquamarine Skaneateles Lake.

On this upstate trip, President Clinton seemed to acknowledge that he was the one playing the political spouse, while his wife worked the crowds like a seasoned politician.

"You know, it's pretty nice to go to a lunch like this when you're the only one not running for anything," he told the diners at the comptroller's banquet.

Learning New York

At the luncheon, with 500 New York Democrats in fancy outfits not meant for touring animal stalls, the first lady offered herself as a New-Yorker-in-training who was learning about "the common aspirations and hopes that New Yorkers have."

After her so-called listening tour around New York, she seemed to empathize about the problems "people talk to me about" -- from high state and local taxes to soaring electric bills. The upstate area, which is struggling economically unlike much of New York City and its suburbs, has suffered from a retreat of businesses and residents. On that heated campaign topic, Hillary Clinton said: "I'm certainly not satisfied."

Around the fairgrounds, she received flowers and kisses from supporters, while a thicket of reporters tracked her every move. In the dairy products building, a beaming Clinton offered reporters free milk -- "Chocolate or white?" she asked -- and indulged in a free chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream cone.

The Clintons spent a few minutes touring the dairy building, which featured a 900-pound butter sculpture depicting a toddler eating from a refrigerator and other odes to the milk product. The Sullivan County Dairy Princess made a pitch to the president, imploring him to put cheese on his McDonald's hamburgers.

But dairy farmers, a few buildings over, were not all feeling so friendly toward the Clintons. As they got ready for the Holstein contest, they worried about the drought and falling profits, and wondered if any Washington politician could understand their needs.

Words of dissent

"We're talking politics -- the farming community," said David Harrington, who runs a farm supply business in Cincinnatus. "We're a minority, and we don't have the clout. How can she understand these problems? She's not even a New Yorker."

But Clinton encountered no such sentiments as she made her way about the fair. Robert E. Lenz of Warners, a retired utility supervisor, waited for the first lady and pulled a crisp $50 bill from his wallet and offered it to her on the spot. She summoned her campaign press secretary, Howard Wolfson, who declined the money, noting that such cash contributions are illegal.

Scores of people waited but never got their Clinton encounter. Some stood for more than three hours outside the art and home center building -- one woman passed out during the wait -- but the Clintons never came.

`You have my vote'

At a crafts exhibit, the Clintons encountered Richard Ferris, a hair stylist from Syracuse.

"I'm so excited! This is the most exciting thing that ever happened to me!" he said, reaching for Clinton's hand and kissing it. "You have my vote. Always!"

As Clinton moved on, Ferris blurted, "I want to do her hair!"

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