In New York, it's Hillary Clinton's choice

November 26, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON--The message in Hillary Rodham Clinton's firm declaration of her candidacy for the Senate is that she needs to stop the political bleeding. It may not be that simple, however.

The growing criticism of her campaign over several weeks has given rise to widespread speculation in the last 10 days that Ms. Clinton might change her mind and decide against making the race. After all, that's supposed to be the reason for an exploratory committee -- to reach a decision.

That speculation, in turn, has discouraged her partisans and, according to some knowledgeable New York Democrats, put a damper on her fund raising. The situation reached a low point of sorts the other day when Judith Hope, the state Democratic chair, suggested the first lady might "give up her day job" to concentrate on the campaign.

So now Ms. Clinton is trying to make a virtue out of necessity by complying with Ms. Hope's suggestion. She announced that she would not only scale back her duties as first lady but soon move into the house she and the president have purchased in Chappaqua.

"I'm going to be moving into my house as soon as the Secret Service tells me that it's ready and available to be moved into," she said. "Obviously, I will still be in Washington from time to time. I have to be. There are many things that I will still have to tend to. But I will be living in Westchester (county) and I'll be traveling around the state and campaigning."

On the face of it, there is nothing so unusual about a senator working and living in Washington while maintaining his or her home back in the state from which he or she is elected.

But this lifestyle is clearly some kind of first for a sitting president and first lady.

And it calls attention to the fact that Hillary Clinton is indeed a carpetbagger determined to superimpose her political ambitions on a state in which she has never lived.

What she can expect now is daily tabulations by the press on how much time she is living in New York and how much she is spending in Washington. There will be stories about how much of the travel back and forth is financed by her campaign and how much by the taxpayers. And there inevitably will be speculation about whether there is a message in her living apart from her husband part of the time.

Just how much of a problem this lifestyle will be in the long run is impossible to measure now. But a new Gallup Poll made for CNN found that only 48 percent of New York voters at large and only 55 percent of Democrats thought it was "appropriate" for her to run for the Senate while serving as first lady.

And this was the case although 66 percent of those questioned by the poll-taker approved of the job Hillary Clinton has done as first lady and 62 percent said she is qualified for the Senate.

The voters may be prepared for this new initiative, however.

The poll found New Yorkers 62 to 33 percent in favor of her reducing her role as first lady and moving to New York. That finding is striking enough so that you have to wonder if her campaign didn't have a similar result from a similar survey that dictated the decision.

In political terms, however, the operative question is not about where Hillary Clinton lives but about how she performs. The suggestion that she give up her day job or quit the campaign outright grew not out of her housing arrangements but out of her inadequacies as a campaigner and the polls showing her trailing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, her Republican opponent for the seat being vacated by Democrat Daniel P. Moynihan.

While conducting what she calls the "listening" stage of her campaign, Ms. Clinton has projected the image of a candidate not ready for prime time in New York. There has been a series of incidents in which she seemed to betray a lack of understanding of the special demands of New York politics.

Her failure to connect with the Jewish voters whose support is critical to any Democratic candidate has been unnerving to some other Democrats in New York.

But Hillary Clinton has always been a fast learner in politics. After growing up in the Chicago suburbs and Yale Law School, she adapted well to the peculiarities of the culture in Arkansas. And after a few early stumbles, she proved an effective campaigner for her husband in the 1992 presidential campaign.

At the least, her announcement that she is moving to the state as soon as possible is a signal Hillary Clinton intends to apply herself to the task ahead.

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