The message to Hillary Rodham Clinton was loud--very loud--and clear.

"DON'T RUN!" screamed the New York Post's front-page headline, with "NYers tell Hillary" in smaller type. The Keep Out sign was based on a Post poll in which respondents, by 53 to 45 percent, said the first lady should pass up New York's Senate race.

By contrast, Clinton's likely GOP opponent draws such headlines as: "Shrinking Mayor: Secrets of Rudy's Diet."

To no one's surprise, Rupert Murdoch's tabloid has emerged as a major force in the Senate showdown, relentlessly flailing the first lady while treating the mayor, Rudy Giuliani, with respect. Critics see the paper as a battering ram that uses its considerable tonnage--headlines, polls, cartoons, unflattering pictures--to slam Hillary Clinton.

"The Post has 'covered' this race much the way that Pravda covered the show trials," writes New York magazine's Michael Tomasky. Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter calls the Post the city's "bagel with a smear."

Post Editor Ken Chandler boasts that "we've set the agenda" in the race but denies being unfair. "We're not afraid to criticize Hillary Clinton, which a lot of other writers seem to be," he says. "We're in a town dominated by liberal writers and liberal media, and we stand out a little bit. We're not always willing to toe the correct political line."

The conservative tabloid, which has a long history of skewering such enemies as Ted Kennedy and Mario Cuomo, has never been a fan of the first couple. The Post packages even relatively straight news stories with its anti-Hillary columnists, from Dick Morris to Steve Dunleavy.

When Clinton criticized Giuliani for arresting homeless people around Thanksgiving, an Andrea Peyser column on the same page asked: "Why doesn't she open her home to the poor?" When Rosie O'Donnell chided Giuliani on the issue last week, two columnists and a cartoonist ridiculed the talk show host.

Dunleavy, calling Clinton "the first hypocrite," apologized to readers because "I have absolutely run out of adjectives to describe the basic moral decadence of the Clinton gang."

When the first lady met with the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and failed to object to Suha Arafat's verbal attacks on Israel--a clear blunder by any standard--the Post went into overdrive with a "SHAME ON HILLARY" screamer.

Says Lars-Erik Nelson, a columnist for the rival Daily News: "They will amplify and magnify any charge from anybody, any time, any place. . . . If you can find anything to hit Hillary Clinton with, that's going to get good play."

John Zogby, who polls for the Post, told reporters the paper had asked him to over-sample Jewish voters after the Israel flap. He joked that "they had the headline all ready to run, 'New York Jews to Hillary: Drop Dead.' But the numbers didn't back that up."

The Post wields outsize influence because local television often follows its lead, as do national magazines, Web sites and talk radio shows. "I guess it's because they scream the loudest and put forth the most outlandish and sexiest version of the story," Tomasky says.

Editorial Page Editor John Podhoretz returned fire in a recent column, noting that Alter lives in New Jersey and recalling "the old cabby's imprecation, 'Go back to Jersey, you moron.' "

"We're no more hostile to Hillary than the Times has been to Rudy as mayor," Podhoretz says. (The New York Times, however, endorsed Giuliani in 1997.) Clinton's problem, he says, is that "she is an absolutely horrible candidate."

Editor Chandler, noting that James Carville has attacked Murdoch's influence on the race, sniffs that Carville "gave all the liberal columnists their marching orders, and they're obliging." Or, just perhaps, they feel compelled to point out that the Post is hardly a neutral observer.

White House Calling

Weekly Standard reporter Tucker Carlson was surprised recently to get a call from Sidney Blumenthal's White House assistant. The aide, Sean Johnson, wanted Carlson's home address.

Johnson acknowledged to Carlson that he was calling people at the direction of Blumenthal's private attorney in connection with the libel suit Blumenthal has filed against cybergossip Matt Drudge over a false allegation of wife-beating. The purpose of the call became clear last week, when Carlson was served at home with a subpoena from Blumenthal. "You can't use the White House press office for a private lawsuit," Carlson says.

Blumenthal says he was in Europe when the calls took place and that he "admonished everyone" involved. "I didn't know about it until afterwards," he says. "It was an innocent mistake on the part of a young person. Certainly I've told people not to let it happen again."

Blumenthal's aide also asked for the address of Carlson's father, consultant Richard Carlson, who calls his pending subpoena "political payback" because he helped Monica Lewinsky with her TV and book deals. The Carlsons say they know nothing about the allegation published by Drudge.

News in Stereo

New federal rules allowing a media company to own two stations in the same market may be having an unintended effect: cutting back on news coverage.

Gannett, which owns the NBC affiliate in Jacksonville, Fla., recently announced plans to buy the ABC affiliate there from media magnate Joe Allbritton. Soon afterward, the head of Gannett's WTLV said the stations' newsrooms would be combined, with the Allbritton station, WJXX, receiving a simulcast of the Gannett newscasts.

WTLV General Manager Ken Tonning offered an upbeat spin, saying: "This will give us the opportunity to serve the community better through increased coverage. We will build a better product." Despite what the Federal Communications Commission calls a "duopoly," he says cable still provides plenty of editorial voices. (The Washington Post Co. owns the CBS affiliate in Jacksonville.)

Tonning says those who lose their jobs will be offered reassignments in other cities and that WJXX may wind up with one separate newscast a day. Some WJXX staffers have already quit, and anchor Jan Fisher says he and his colleagues are "shocked and dismayed. . . . The city of Jacksonville is the ultimate loser here because there's not going to be a diversity of news."

Could this be what the FCC had in mind?

Making Book

The Wall Street Journal has cut a deal with Simon & Schuster for its own publishing imprint. While Journal reporters will not be required to pass up a better deal from another publisher, spokesman Richard Tofel says they could be wooed with a paid leave of absence in exchange for a smaller advance.

Rationalization of the Week

"One hates to muck about in sensationalism . . . but there is an obligation to the voters"--the once-staid New York Times on Donald Trump's girlfriend, Melania Knauss, and how she was "reportedly nude" while The Donald discussed their sex life with radio shock jock Howard Stern.

CAPTION: The New York Post's John Podhoretz calls Clinton a "horrible candidate."