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    The First Lady's Candidacy


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  • Friday, June 4, 1999

    First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has flirted with the idea of running for the open U.S. Senate seat in New York for months, and her announcement that she is forming an exploratory committee has made that possibility much more real. Both supporters and critics are already lining up for what could be the most-watched race of 2000.

    Michael Grunwald covers New York for The Washington Post, and has followed Clinton's debate over whether to jump into the race. Grunwald joined The Post in 1998 and covered the Justice Department before moving to New York.

    Grunwald answered your questions live Friday. The transcript follows:


    washingtonpost.com:: Welcome, Michael, and thanks for joining us. There are a lot of Clinton critics out there who say the first lady is going to have a very tough time with the New York media and that support for her is much softer than is being portrayed. Do you think there's more that hasn't already been thrown her way? What's your impression of support among New Yorkers for Hillary Clinton for Senate?

    Michael Grunwald: Thanks a lot. I think it's pretty tough to guess right now how solid her support will be; the polls say it's going to be a tough race, but who knows. Polls and a token will get you on the subway, right? I can say that so far, she seems to be getting great reactions when she speaks in NY, even among some Republicans. So Democrats are obviously excited by the prospect of her running.


    College Park, MD: We have heard all about how much Hillary's candidacy will hurt Al Gore. Are there ways in which her candidacy could help him in his bid for the presidency?

    Michael Grunwald: Well, I'm not a terrific pundit. Hillary running would certainly help Gore in NY, but presumably, if he needs her help in NY, he's in big trouble. The Gore people are putting out the line that if she runs, she's going to get a lot of free national media and build excitement among Democratic women around the country. Obviously, though, if she runs in NY, she's not going to do much campaigning for Gore in Michigan.


    Washington, DC: A race between Mrs. Clinton and Mayor Giuliani has the capacity to turn into a real blood bath. Do you think there's any chance of a substance-based debate in this campaign, or will the high-profile glare turn it into a mud fest?

    Michael Grunwald: Again, I'm not brilliant about political strategy. But my guess is that it would be substantive and a bloodbath. They've already starting to fight a little bit about school vouchers, which is certainly a debate worth having. They're both very smart people who care a lot about policy, and they probably disagree quite a bit about things like taxes and welfare and health care.


    Chicago, IL: Could this be an iffy battle for the New York Democrats? Last year they spent a lot of time behind Geraldine Ferraro, and some say it hurt Schumer despite his win. It looks as though the New York Democratic party is risking losing a seat in the Senate for the sake of supporting initially high-profile candidates.

    Michael Grunwald: Well, right now, they're basically banking on Hillary. I quoted some Democrat today saying that if she drops out, they're screwed. I think the Ferraro thing was different; she certainly was well known, but she turned out to be a lousy candidate, so Schumer beat her. But there was really no reason the Democrats should have known she'd be such a lousy candidate before the primary.


    Omaha, NE: Why doesn't Hillary run for the Senate in Illinois, a state to which she already has an attachment and which has a less closely-contested race? Is she thinking of using a N.Y. Senate position as a springboard to a presidential run in 2008?

    Michael Grunwald: I don't think there is an Illinois race this year. I guess the stock answer to your question is that she's decided she wants to live in New York, and that New York has a history of "national senators" like Bobby Kennedy. But it's still weird. And I would be surprised if she weren't thinking that she might be a candidate president someday; maybe even 2004 if Gore loses. I'd say it's probably crossed her mind.


    washingtonpost.com: Given the problems both Harold Ickes and Terry McAuliffe had with Clinton-Gore '96 fund-raising, how smart is it for Mrs. Clinton to be surrounding herself with these people, regardless of their political talents?

    Michael Grunwald: Well...Terry McAuliffe can raise a hell of a lot of money. Kind of hard to see why she'd want to pass that up. And she's real close to Ickes. I'd say that if her race turns out just like the '96 race, she'd be pretty happy with that.


    Washington, DC: What if she loses? Wouldn't that be awfully embarrassing? Do you think she has even considered the possibility?

    Michael Grunwald: Yeah, that would suck. I'm sure she's considered the possibility. I'm sure she's hoping it won't happen. She's had a pretty rough few years, and I'd say a humiliating defeat is probably not what she has in mind.


    Washington, DC: I know you were with the Boston Globe during the 1996 Senate race between Sen. John Kerry (D) and Gov. Bill Weld (R). That race seemed to be a barometer for Senate races around the country, with bright stars from each party battling it out. Would a Clinton-Giuliani race be a similar match-up as far as setting the political tone nationally?

    Michael Grunwald: Hmm. Now I'm getting suspicious. Nobody but my friends know my byline. But assuming this question is on the level, I would say that this race would get about a million times more attention than the Kerry-Weld thing. I mean, that was interesting, and they were clever guys, but this would be the most famous woman in America against the guy who tamed New York City. Honestly, it would probably be more interesting than a presidential race between two politicians' sons.


    Alexandria, VA: Michael,

    Anyway...do you think the media has been a little soft on Mrs. Clinton? Are they waiting until she officially declares before they REALLY start covering her? Secondly, how come none of the media has picked up on the fact that she only wants to live near NYC. New York is a big state, and I'm sure she could get an incredible home in Buffalo, or Syracuse or even Rochester. It seems this is all a status thing to me... your thoughts?

    Michael Grunwald: Yeah, probably a little soft. She hasn't declared yet, and she hasn't let anyone too near her yet. I also did write a slightly bitchy story saying that the New York media aren't quite so tough as they think they are. But presumably if she does run she'll have to talk at least a little bit about Whitewater and the health care fiasco and cattle futures.


    Durham, NC: How much do you think New Yorkers will view Mrs. Clinton as a "carpet-bagger"? There had also been talk earlier that she would run for the Senate in Illinois. Could this play into the feeling that Clinton is just trying to get to the Senate any way she can?

    Michael Grunwald: I don't know. I mean, she is a carpetbagger. I don't know if that will really bother people. I imagine some people will think she's just trying to grab an open Senate seat; that said, they might vote for her anyway.


    Essex, MD: At the moment, the First Lady looks quite elegant and sophisticated not to mention beautiful – especially compared to Mr. Giuliani! Given that her look has changed numerous times during her time in the White House, often to fit the political moment, do you see anything in her current appearance that would appeal specifically to New Yorkers, especially those that live in the city?

    Michael Grunwald: I don't know about that. I saw Giuliani in that dress, and I thought he was pretty cute. But I'm not sure that glam helmet-hair thing she's got going now is directed towards New Yorkers. If she wants to appeal to New Yorkers right now, I think she should get some Latrell Sprewell cornrows.


    Anywhere: Can just anybody "establish" residence in New York and be eligible to run for office? Beyond that, what qualities-qualifications does Ms. Clinton bring to the foray?

    Michael Grunwald: Legally, I think she has to have an official residence in New York by election day. As for qualities, well, she seems pretty smart, don't you think? She's great with crowds. She's extremely popular, although obviously not to everyone. She's got that star power thing happening. And she is the first lady of the United States of America, which probably ought to count for something.


    Alexandria, VA: Assuming Rep. Rick Lazio enters the race, would a strong GOP primary help or hurt Hillary? It seems to me it would help from the money standpoint – the GOP candidates would have to spend most of their money winning the primary – but would also hurt her because the media would focus so much on the GOP candidates and not on her. Also, she would not be able to concentrate any attacks on a particular candidate until after the primary, while both Giuliani and Lazio could bash her at will.

    Michael Grunwald: It sounds like Lazio is going to enter the race. I would assume that would help Hillary – it would remind everyone how fractured New York Republicans are right now. Lazio is already attacking Giuliani over suburban issues, and Giuliani needs to win the suburbs to beat Hillary.


    Washington DC: May not her candidacy siphon money away from medium-profile Democrats campaigning against vulnerable Republicans and unify all forces of the GOP coalition the 2000 elections?

    Michael Grunwald: It might. Although she probably wouldn't need to rely on any money from the party, since she'll raise so much herself.


    washingtonpost.com: What is your sense of New Yorkers' feelings about the "carpet bagging" issue?

    Michael Grunwald: I don't know. It is kind of presumptuous to parachute into a state where you've never lived and announce that you're the best person to represent it in the Senate. But people aren't stupid. They know that politics is politics, and politicians are ambitious. I suppose they'll want her to show that she "understands" New York issues, but anyone can read a briefing book. My guess is that when it comes down to it, they'll vote for her if they like her better than her opponent, and they won't if they don't.


    Arlington, VA: New York does indeed have a tradition of electing outsiders and the Republicans should remember James Buckley of Sharon, Conn., so the issue isn't just a Democratic one. Actually, one of New York's first senators, Rufus King, signed the Constitution as a delegate from Massachusetts. I think it all boils down to whether or not you like Mrs. Clinton.

    Michael Grunwald: Well, me too. But I wasn't around in the King era.


    Little Rock, AR: What is your relationship with Mandy Grunwald?

    Michael Grunwald: I call her on the phone, and she says opaque things that don't get my stories onto the front page. (We're not related.)


    Washington DC: TOTALLY unrelated question, but do you have a sister named Judy who went to Penn? She and I were friends and we lost touch, and she had a reporter brother who I think was named Michael. Thanks.

    Michael Grunwald: You know, I get asked all the time whether I'm related to Mandy Grunwald, but this is the first time I've been asked about Judy Grunwald – who is now the happily married Judy Kleinstein. But I like this question much better, because yes, she is my sister. I almost missed the Hillary story yesterday because I was at her medical school graduation.


    Springfield, VA: As first lady, isn't Hillary able to travel to New York on "campaign" events at taxpayer expense? Is that fair? Shouldn't she declare now and have to pay out of her campaign fund like the other candidates?

    Michael Grunwald: Once she forms an exploratory committee – early July, probably – she'll probably start paying for more of this herself. But I assume we'll still pay for her Secret Service protection. That might not be fair, but if any of the other candidates were the first lady of the United States, I'm sure they'd get the same deal.


    New York, NY: As a New Yorker, I must say that I am very disappointed that she is going to run. She knows nothing about the issues impacting both the upstate and NYC regions. Aside from the fact that she is the president's spouse, what can she bring to the Senate in representing the issues of New York that either Nita Lowey or Rudy Giuliani could not?

    Michael Grunwald: Well, she can learn, I guess. She is one of the most admired women in the world, so presumably some people think she brings something to the table. Politically, she's probably not that different from Nita Lowey, but with a statewide name recognition that's a lot higher than 14 percent. Obviously, she brings a very different perspective than Giuliani.


    washingtonpost.com: That was our last question for Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald. Thank you, Michael, and thanks to all who participated today.

    Michael Grunwald: Thanks a lot. Thanks for sending the questions. And if she goes and gets cornrows, you can say you heard it here first.



    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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