Clinton's

Senate bid is on the rocks

November 19, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- The New York state Democratic Party chairwoman, Judith Hope, now claims she was having her little joke when she recently suggested that Hillary Clinton "give up her day job" and concentrate on her campaign for the Senate.

But, joke or not, Ms. Hope reflected a widespread concern among Democratic activists here that the first lady's campaign for the Senate seat now held by Daniel P. Moynihan is floundering. Indeed, much of the buzz in New York is about whether Mrs. Clinton may not simply shut down her exploratory committee.

There has beenno signal from the Clinton camp that such a decision is being considered. But Democrats are talking among themselves about who might serve as a replacement candidate, with speculation centering on Robert Kennedy Jr., Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

The uneasiness with Mrs. Clinton has been growing steadily in the past few months as evidence accumulates that she may not be politically sure-footed enough to handle the peculiar pressures of running in this state.

One of the factors contributing to that concern is the polling data that shows the first lady running consistently behind her likely opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and no better than even with him among the critically important Jewish voters.

Mrs. Clinton has had a series of awkward moments with Jewish voters here, who expect their candidates to be reliably supportive of Israel but who also are offended by what they see as blatant pandering. The first lady has had the worst of both worlds with this group that normally divides more than two to one for a Democrat.

Palestinian state issue

Even before she was running her exploratory operation, Mrs. Clinton set off some alarm bells by voicing her support for creation of an independent state of Palestine. That is, of course, something that is probably going to happen ultimately and with the support of the United States. But saying so out loud now goes beyond U.S. policy.

Mrs. Clinton has not repeated that endorsement. But when she also endorsed the notion of a united Jerusalem serving as the capital of Israel, a priority goal of the Israelis, her statement was seen as pandering in an attempt to compensate for the earlier blunder.

Mrs. Clinton compounded these problems when she went to the Middle East last week and sat by passively while the wife of Yasser Arafat, Suha, excoriated Israel in the harshest terms. Her mild rebuke was delivered the next day.

Among political insiders here, the episode was seen as further evidence that Mrs. Clinton has neither the staff nor the street smarts herself to be a successful candidate. What no one can understand is why she would appear with Mrs. Arafat without an advance assurance that she would not say or do anything so controversial.

However, Mrs. Clinton's campaign has been marked by a series of little incidents that set off alarm bells amongthe political wise guys here. That happened, for example, when she initially sat by silently when President Clinton pardoned those Puerto Rican nationalists. Later, she joined in criticizing her husband's decision after Republicans accused him of doing it to help her campaign.

The first lady also is being forced to deal with critics who complain she is getting special treatment. The original financing plan for the Clintons' new Westchester County house depended heavily on a generous guarantee from a friend, Democratic fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe.

To no one's surprise, it was quickly noted that such a sweetheart deal with a constituent would not pass muster if some other candidate had been involved. So the Clintons obtained conventional financing.

Then there was the disclosure that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had paid for a series of television commercials for her campaign, something that adjunct of the Democratic National Committee is not doing for other Senate prospects.

Taken together, all these things have been enough to make some Democrats yearn for a more conventional -- and perhaps more skilled -- candidate for the Senate.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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