Can Hillary out-Yankee Rudy?

The first lady--oh, yeah, and her husband, the president--hosted the 1998 World Series champion New York Yankees on the South Lawn yesterday. This is a common photo-op: champion athletes of all sorts get to come to the White House. But what curious timing, this visit by the Yankees--it comes eight months after they won the World Series but only days after Hillary Rodham Clinton announced she was forming an exploratory committee to run for a New York seat in the U.S. Senate.

That would be the same New York Senate seat being eyed by one Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York City and perhaps Yankees Fan No. 1. Giuliani wears a Yankees cap like a king wears a crown. He wants to build a new Yankee Stadium on Manhattan's West Side. He wears his Yankees jacket to City Hall.

The Yankees coming to the White House?

Ouch.

If political campaigns trade in symbolism, this was was Hillary dropping the Big One, right on Rudy's head. In New Yawkese, she was telling the mayor: "Explore this, pal!"

It was the first lady, not her husband, who opened yesterday's ceremony, revealing that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has been a "great friend" to the First Couple and, apparently, a copious correspondent, offering affirming homilies during the Clintons' tough times.

Yankees Manager Joe Torre gave both Clintons team caps. He watched the first lady put hers on.

"Perfect," he said.

On yesterday's "Today" show, the first lady played her familiar wink-and-a-nod, maybe-I'm-running-maybe-I'm-not shtick with host Katie Couric, who asked Clinton first about the New York Knicks--currently battling in the NBA playoffs--and then about the Yankees.

"Are you a big Knicks fan?" Couric asked.

"I'm becoming a big Knicks fan," the first lady responded, laughing.

"More and more every day, huh?" Couric parried.

And then a sleepy-eyed nation collectively hurled.

Later, Clinton asserted that she'd "always been a Yankees fan." Couric correctly challenged her, saying she thought the first lady, a native of Illinois, was a Chicago Cubs fan.

"I am a Cubs fan," Clinton said. "But I needed an American League team . . . so as a young girl, I became very interested and enamored of the Yankees."

If the first lady's campaign advisers are smart, they will urge her to "distance" herself from the Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since, oh, the Mesozoic Era. Even with spectacular slugger Sammy Sosa, the Cubs seem destined to always be "Lovable Losers"--baseball's equivalent of Hubert Humphrey.

There is a school of thought, however, that says there's no way Hillary can out-Yankee Rudy, so she should aim her efforts elsewhere. This strategy has historical success: During the 1968 presidential election, Republican Richard Nixon knew there was no way he could "out-liberal" Democrat Humphrey, so he ignored the noisy left and campaigned to the conservative "silent majority."

Could it work for the first lady?

"The White House should pay attention to the Mets," says Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Policy Institute. "There's no way anyone could wear the Yankees uniform as much as Rudy Giuliani, so rather than trying to compete with the mayor on his dedication to the Yankees, she'd be better to go with the Mets."

But aligning herself with the Mets--who've existed only since 1962--could help opponents who tag Clinton as a carpetbagger. She'd be better off sticking with the Yankees, whose lineage goes back to the 19th century, when they were the called the Knickerbockers and you could get runners out between bases the New York way--by hitting them with the baseball.

As for Giuliani, yesterday's White House affair reduced him to harrumphery.

"Funny, I haven't seen her at a Yankee game," the mayor said yesterday. "I've been at Yankee Stadium maybe 1,000 times and I haven't seen Mrs. Clinton."

Staff writer Michael Powell contributed to this report.

CAPTION: A perfect fit? Hillary Clinton, eyeing a New York seat in the Senate, tries on a gift from her guests, the Yankees, as owner George Steinbrenner and the president watch.

CAPTION: New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the first lady's likely Senate opponent, is an unsurpassed Yankees devotee.