Hillary Clinton-for-Senate Hopes Alive
By Michael Grunwald
But the Hillary-for-Senate scenario got a bit more plausible today, when Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo announced that he had decided not to run in 2000. With state Democrats turning up the pressure on the first lady to try to replace retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and with some of her friends dropping hints that she just might be interested, she did nothing to dampen the speculation raging about her political intentions.
"She's certainly flattered by the speculation," said the first lady's spokeswoman, Marsha Berry. "At this point, she has no plans to run for elective office, but she hasn't ruled it out. . . . I can tell you that she does like New York."
It's still hard to imagine Hillary Clinton campaigning to join the body that is now putting her husband on trial. She has her enemies, and they have hammered away at her failed health care plan and her role in the Whitewater affair, but she is a well-respected lawyer and children's advocate, and the most admired woman in America in some polls. There has always been talk that she might run for the Senate someday in her native Illinois or her adopted Arkansas, and exiled Clinton adviser Dick Morris says that in 1990, the Clintons commissioned him to do two polls to test her viability as a gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas.
To be sure, some of her friends point out that she has come to despise Washington and its politics, and that, with her distaste for the media, she might recoil at the tabloid-soaked culture of New York. But political analysts agreed today that if the past year in American politics has made anything clear, it's that nothing is clear in American politics.
"Hey, stranger things have happened," said New York pollster John Zogby. "New York has always liked the Clintons, all the way back to George and DeWitt."
The popularity of George Clinton, vice president to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and a seven-term New York governor, and his nephew DeWitt Clinton, the former mayor, governor and senator who built the Erie Canal, are not relevant. But New York was Bill Clinton's second-best state in 1992, his third-best in 1996. And a recent Zogby poll suggested that the first lady would cruise to the Democratic nomination here, and would pose a serious challenge to irascible but popular New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) in a general election.
Of course, the election is still two years away. Giuliani, who has been widely credited with reviving the Big Apple, has not yet decided to run, although term limits will force him out of office in 2001. One potential problem is that if the mayor won, he'd have to turn over his job to Public Advocate Mark Green, a liberal Democrat who is one of his fiercest critics.
Giuliani could also face serious competition in a GOP primary, where more conservative candidates tend to appeal to party regulars and upstate voters. Former senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, who was unseated by Democrat Charles E. Schumer in November, is mulling a comeback run, and he remains influential within the state Republican establishment. Rep. Rick Lazio of Long Island, one of the House's top fund-raisers, also could enter the fray.
Cuomo, the son of former governor Mario M. Cuomo, was clearly the favored Democrat. But he said today he still has things he wants to accomplish at HUD, and that he wants to help Vice President Gore win the White House in 2000. "I believe you should finish your current job before seeking a new one," said Cuomo, who is one of Gore's closest advisers and has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate. "I know, it may be novel in my line of work, but I honor my commitments."
Comptroller Carl McCall, the state's most prominent black politician, and environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose late father won this seat as an out-of-stater in 1964 and whose sister is married to Andrew Cuomo, have been mentioned as possible candidates. But McCall and Kennedy withdrew from consideration earlier.
Other Democrats mentioned are less prominent: Green, Rep. Nita M. Lowey of Westchester, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of Manhattan, state Assemblyman Michael Bragman of Onandaga County and Al Sharpton, the outspoken black minister. Even the names of nonpolitical figures such as actor Alec Baldwin and entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg have been bandied about, as has Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala's.
But today, the name on Democratic lips here was Hillary Clinton. Some analysts believe her frequent visits last fall gave a real boost to Schumer during his race against D'Amato, who had angered her by aggressively chairing the Senate hearings into Whitewater. In Zogby's poll, her statewide approval rating topped 60 percent. And she would have access to the vaunted Clinton fund-raising machine in what is sure to be a very expensive race.
"I've urged Hillary to look at this seriously," said former Democratic state chairman John Marino. "I think the Democratic candidate in New York in 2000 is going to be very, very strong. And that's going to have a lot to do with what's happening in Washington right now."
If Hillary Clinton does run while her husband is in office -- or, if the Senate pulls a surprise, after her husband is removed from office -- the world will watch to see how she handles the issue of impeachment and whether she would try to use it against the Republican Party.
"This is a three-act play," said an associate who has spoken with the first lady about a possible Senate bid. "We're near the end of the second act now. For the third act, some hero has to come back, pick up the flag and move it forward. . . . I think she's the denouement of the piece."
But as New Yorkers say, that and a token will get you on the subway. Running for office in this state takes work, and nobody knows how a first lady would be able to do it. She wouldn't have to maintain an official residence in New York until Election Day, but she wouldn't get any special treatment, either.
"If she runs, I think you'll see a real close look at her background," said New York GOP spokesman Terry O'Brien. "Whitewater. The health care debacle. I'm sure she could raise some serious money, but she's also got some serious baggage."
Staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.
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