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Political Junkie: Is N.Y. ready for Sen. Clinton?

  First Lady Faces Decision on Senate Bid

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 1999; Page A2

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will "seriously consider" whether to run for the Senate from New York in 2000 once the Senate impeachment trial of her husband has been concluded, several knowledgeable Democrats said yesterday.

The first lady has been besieged in recent weeks by Democrats in New York and elsewhere who have strongly encouraged her to seek the seat of retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), arguing that she would be the strongest possible candidate the party could nominate.

Hillary Clinton's office sought to play down intensifying discussion about a possible Senate race yesterday, and a number of Democrats said they still doubted that the first lady would jump into electoral politics this year, despite the pressure she is under.

But the possibility of a Clinton Senate campaign appears to have moved beyond the point of mere speculation, according to a number of sources. As one Democrat familiar with New York politics put it yesterday: "People who were telling me until a week ago that they didn't think this was going to happen now believe it's really possible that it could happen."

Another Democratic source said, "I think she is thinking about it and will take a hard look at it now." But he added, "Unless she's made a decision in her soul and has told no one, she has not decided what to do."

Marsha Berry, Hillary Clinton's press secretary, offered no clues about the first lady's leanings. "Her feeling has been that she's not in a position to be thinking about making a decision about a life choice like this while the Senate is conducting their business," Berry said. "I suspect at some point in the not-too-distant future she will begin to give thought to it."

Berry discounted reports that the first lady's staff had begun to clear her calendar later in the year and noted that several foreign trips have been scheduled.

A senior adviser to the first lady said, "There are an awful lot of people who are clearly interested in having her run. But I am not aware of a single serious discussion she has had with anyone, outside of listening to people who have pleaded with her to do this."

But others said she already is thinking about it. The chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.), "is putting tremendous pressure on her," said one Democrat knowledgeable about the race. "Labor folks are really pushing it. The New York money folks are really pushing it. She hasn't dismissed it out of hand. She's interested and is considering it and will go through that process.

The Clinton-for-Senate boomlet has energized New York Democrats. "Democrats in this state are more and more excited by the prospect that she might run," said former state Democratic chairman John Marino.

The talk of a possible Senate campaign has grown in part because of a suggestion from President Clinton that the first lady might take the plunge. He told a fund-raising dinner in New York last week that he might be remembered as "the person who comes with Hillary to New York."

Around the same time, New York Democratic Party chairman Judith Hope fed the speculation by saying she thought the odds were "50-50" that Clinton would run. Yesterday, Hope sounded more cautious. "I still think it's a long shot and would be surprised if this were the choice she made," Hope said. "But it is my very strong impression that she has not ruled this out."

New York Democrats said the first lady would enjoy universal support within the party if she decided to run and likely would face no primary opposition. They said she would have strong backing from labor, women, African Americans, Hispanics and New York City voters.

Another New York Democrat said a Clinton candidacy would generate "more energy across the state than at any time since the Gene McCarthy anti-war campaign" in 1968.

But a number of Democrats said the first lady had to undertake a more serious analysis before making a decision.

"I would be 100 percent for her going, but I don't want to encourage some fool's errand," said Bill Lynch, a leading New York Democratic strategist. "I think she would be a heck of a candidate, but we have to do some assessments of where things are in the suburbs and upstate."

Others said there were several reasons why Clinton might not want to run. First, she would give up the opportunity to make a significant amount of money after the president leaves office. Second, she would face a brutal campaign -- particularly if her opponent were New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) -- that likely would resurrect issues such as the Whitewater land deal and her commodities trading in Arkansas.

"The question she has to answer is, do I want to put myself through that recycling?" one Democratic strategist said.

Third, she has had a difficult relationship with the media since coming to Washington and could be hurt by that unless she adopted a different posture toward journalists.

A final consideration is that she might not win.

Several Democrats already have passed up the race, but Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y) is strongly considering a campaign. Democrats said the first lady will need to make a decision soon out of deference to the needs of other potential candidates.

"It's important that she make that decision over the next few months, and I mean two months, not four months," Marino said.

"She's not a frivolous person," said one Democrat. "My sense is that she will make the decision fairly quickly."

Staff writer Ruth Marcus and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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