Celebrity status haunts, helps Clinton

Even some critics of the N.Y. candidate are fascinated by her

September 19, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

POMONA, N.Y. - In the throng surrounding Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton at a sheet metal workers' picnic just outside New York City, the shouting erupts:

"Please give me an autograph - please!"

"She acknowledged me - did you see that?"

"Move it - I'm getting choked."

"I got a picture right square in her face!"

A man on the public address system is calling for order while Secret Service agents dressed in country casual outfits yell for everyone to take three steps back. Clinton is a tiny dot at the center of it all, signing T-shirts, scraps of paper, anything - a rock star in a permanent-press pantsuit.

The candidate whose very presence has inspired a mini-industry of hostile literature, not to mention a raft of pundits who loathe her, is working overtime to combat the visceral reactions that quickly made this campaign into a referendum on her tumultuous reign as first lady.

In the past week, Clinton pulled slightly ahead in polls for the first time in the 14 months since this race began. Only a sliver of the electorate - less than 10 percent - remains undecided, the rest loving or hating her from the start and remaining unmoved in a deadlocked contest.

Rage about her candidacy thrives. It began with her decision to run as a celebrity candidate without having lived in New York, but quickly moved to her ill-fated 1993 effort on health care and encompassed more amorphous frustrations with the Clinton era as a whole.

But even with the loaded reactions the word "Clinton" inspires, her outsider stardom may yet be the best campaign tool she has, and her campaign is betting that fascination with her will translate into votes.

At the picnic, Michael Westphal, a 66-year-old father and son of sheet metal workers, though not one himself, watches with rapt attention as Clinton works the crowd. Though a Democrat, he complains that she should go back to Arkansas, that he wouldn't vote for her because she isn't a native New Yorker. But even as he grumbles, the candidate starts moving closer and his face brightens. "Is she coming over?" he asks. "I wouldn't mind giving her a hug."

Clinton's opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, a Republican congressman from Long Island, is betting that Clinton's other image - that of the imperial candidate, swooping in on New York from on high - will win him the campaign.

"You don't usually get huge emotional responses to candidates, but she does, and it's all because she's so well-known," says New York pollster Maurice "Mickey" Carroll. "Let's face it. She wouldn't be a candidate if she wasn't a celebrity, but it makes it difficult for her. When you've been on the front page for eight years, it gives people a lot of time to form opinions."

These days, she tries for spontaneity, hoping to seem more folksy than regal. Whether she is hugging a supporter or complimenting a reporter on her lipstick or joking about her new hometown, her tone is informal. (The strategy has its pitfalls: While Lazio was declaring "Ich bin ein New Yorker" at a German-American parade last weekend, Clinton was asking, "What is it, Chappaquidians? Chappa what? Chappaquinians? What do we call ourselves?" The answer: Residents of Chappaqua.)

Clinton has learned to capitalize on the unscripted. At the picnic here, a little girl with a painted face walks up and takes her hand. The first lady - who campaigns solely as "Hillary!" as if she's as familiar to New Yorkers as their next-door neighbors - sweetly hangs onto it as she rips into Lazio and the Republican leadership. The crowd roars as Clinton looks at the girl and adds, "Even the children know who you should vote for!"

But as Clinton seeks greater political intimacy, she does so guardedly. In a visit to a Buffalo diner, the campaign allows cameras but no sound technicians, and a reporter complains bitterly before he is allowed to tape what Clinton says inside.

Later, some reporters grouse to her aides that the candidate doesn't answer questions about the little things that would make her seem more human - they know she loves decorating her new house, but nobody has a clue what colors her rooms are. Complicating efforts at familiarity: The Secret Service often pens reporters behind yellow crime-scene tape.

Part of her communication problems are explained by fame; the famous seem impenetrable. But Clinton also might be to blame. At Mark Twain Intermediate School in Coney Island, where she appears with Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman, the kids - enthusiastic at first -want to know if she dreaded going to school. She responds with a clunky endorsement of a good public school education. They seem bored. She's lost them.

`It's genius'

In a race largely fought on television in sprawling New York, the picture is everything and Clinton knows it. When Clinton visits the Buffalo diner, she knows what to do when she spots a baby in pink fleece. Instead of kissing her, Clinton lifts her high above her head and beams up at her.

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