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  •   Aides Say First Lady Is Likely to Run

    Hillary Rodham Clinton,
    First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona on Wednesday. (AP)
    By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, May 20, 1999; Page A1

    Friends and political associates of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday they now regard it as a virtual certainty that she will run for Senate in New York next year, a candidacy she plans to advance by establishing an exploratory committee within weeks of returning from a Florida vacation later this month.

    The exploratory committee would allow her to raise money and pay for travel costs to the Empire State. The first lady flies on Air Force jets for all her travel; her eight visits to New York so far this year have been paid for mostly by the government but in part by various political groups that had invited her.

    Clinton, according to people close to her, has cautioned in recent conversations that she is not yet ready for a final decision and an announcement of candidacy. But a variety of Washington and New York political sources who have spoken to her or her strategists said yesterday that -- after weeks of sometimes agonized deliberations -- she is past the essential question of should-I-or-shouldn't-I. At this point, sources said, not running would require a change of mind on the first lady's part and a reversal of the assumptions on which nearly all her recent conversations have been based.

    As a practical matter, she has the rudiments of a political operation in place, drawing on personnel used by President Clinton in his 1992 and 1996 campaigns. Former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, a Washington lawyer with deep roots in New York Democratic politics, has been advising her for two months about the likely contours of a Senate race. Political consultant Mandy Grunwald, who established close ties with the first lady during the 1992 campaign and her husband's first term, is part of the core group.

    So are two people whose connections with the Clintons were established in the 1996 race: Mark Penn, the president's pollster, is advising the first lady's prospective candidacy. And fund-raiser Terence McAuliffe, on friendly terms with both Clintons, is offering advice on a fund-raising strategy, sources said.

    The slow unveiling of Clinton's potential candidacy -- which associates said even she viewed as a lark when speculation began last winter and has now taken on air of inevitability -- is likely to continue for some time. The exploratory campaign could be established as soon as early June, some political sources said. But one adviser said it was more likely this will wait until early July, in part because of a schedule that will take the first lady to the Middle East next month.

    The first lady's spokeswoman, Marsha Berry, cautioned that the first lady's plans may not become as clear as soon as even some supporters are assuming. "She's certainly looking at an exploratory committee, but I think people are jumping to conclusions" about whether its formation is imminent.

    Even then, however, associates say, she will try to keep an element of doubt about her intentions -- in part to preserve her flexibility to change her mind, in part to avoid immersing herself fully in 2000 politics at the expense of the other projects she has pursed as first lady.

    "The finger is on the go button," said one knowledgeable Democrat. "She just hasn't decided to push it yet."

    "The scale is dipping appreciably on the 'run' side of the fulcrum," said one Democrat close to the first lady and her strategists. "She could still wake up one day and say . . . to heck with this."

    Not one of several associates of the first lady yesterday said they consider that likely. Despite Clinton's preference for keeping her 2000 intentions opaque, there are several factors forcing some measure of clarity.

    One factor is legal. Clinton, like her husband, travels on Air Force planes. When travel is deemed essentially political, the Clintons partially reimburse the government according to a formula based on what it would cost to fly commercial. White House lawyers, including Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and deputy counsel Cheryl Mills, according to sources, have strongly advised Clinton to avoid ethical controversy -- some of which is already brewing in the New York media -- by forming an exploratory committee and reimbursing the New York travel.

    Associates of the first lady have said the Secret Service wants her to fly on Air Force planes, not on commercial flights. The other factor pushing Clinton's timing involves the possibility of a backlash in New York if she lags too long in signaling her plans. "Hillary really has an obligation if she's not going to run to say so in early June," said one adviser, who fully expects a candidacy.

    Polls show Clinton leading New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), who also has not announced his intention to run, in a hypothetical matchup. Associates say that Clinton knows that a race against the hard-hitting Giuliani would be very tough and that she is prepared to take on the fight.

    "It's obvious to anyone who sits down with Hillary Clinton that she is enthusiastic about being a senator," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has sat down with her. Schumer said he believes among Clinton's misgivings is the need to immerse herself fully in New York politics, effectively giving up other duties. "You have to be a full-time candidate," he said. He also said that the first lady needs to become "comfortable with the risk she may lose."

    In fact, say associates, she has spent considerable time discussing this -- knowing that the unprecedented candidacy of a sitting first lady, particularly in a state where she has never lived, would carry implications far beyond those facing the typical candidate be interpreted as a kind of referendum on the agenda of her husband and their personal reputations. "She's not naive about this," said one adviser. "She doesn't expect to lose, but you have to go in with the understanding you might." After a period of soul-searching, this person added, "she's reconciled to that."

    For now, Clinton is determined that her potential candidacy exist in tandem with her work as first lady. She is on a tour of southwestern states this week promoting preservation, and today will attend a service with her husband in Littleton, Colo., to mourn last month's high school massacre. While in Colorado, according to associates, she will give an interview to CBS's Dan Rather, to be aired in next week's edition of "60 Minutes II."

    Next week she will take yet another trip to New York. She will attend a book signing for Matilda Cuomo and attend an arts event. Then in an event designed to leave pundits scratching their heads, she will keep a pledge to attend a fund-raiser for Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who has said she plans to run for Senate if the first lady doesn't.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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