It's the I-got-to-barf sound, as rendered by Theresa Bouzas. We're sitting in Gino's pizzeria and we've just asked the 34-year-old pregnant woman what she thinks of the first lady running for a U.S. Senate seat in New York.
She's putting her index finger into her throat.
"How do you say, she makes me sick? Positively ill. She stays with her husband when he's fooling around and for that she expects me to vote for her? Puh-leeze."
Ask what she thinks of the president and she starts with the gotta barf routine again.
These are troubled times for the first lady. Her likely opponent, that mayor with the cadaverous pallor, is dominating the news cycle with his threats to stomp the transit union into subway dust. And her latest poll numbers aren't so hot. Unfavorables pile higher than favorables. Protestants and Catholics are not so crazy about her. Even Jews, who tend to carry Democratic Party credentials entwined in their DNA, favor her only by a whisker.
The good news for Clinton is that Hizzoner Rudolph Giuliani is only a tad less unpopular--35 percent of voters have a favorable impression of him in a recent Quinnipiac College poll. And he trails Clinton badly in the city he now rules. Where, presumably, the voters know him best.
It's a death match between deadly personalities.
But the first lady is behind statewide, 42 percent to 46 percent for Giuliani, and no place looks dicier for her than the suburbs of Westchester and Long Island. Miles and miles of subdivisions and malls and Cape Cods and Tudors and garden apartments and lawn ornaments and great beaches, a sea of punctilious voters. Approximately 15 to 20 percent of the state's electorate hail from the New York City suburbs, and these voters favor Giuliani by 59 to 32 percent right now.
So we explore Clinton's electoral heart of darkness, a from-the-suburbs view of a campaign that is a more complicated puzzle than it appeared during the honeyed days of summer, when she began her candidacy.
What's to Like?
Great Neck is on the North Shore, which means well-to-do lawyers, brokers and orthodontists. Predominantly Jewish, which means Democrat. Loudly opinionated, which just means we're here in the New York metro region. If there's a place where the first lady's going to find a few friends, it's here. And Sylvia Santini, the silver-to-blond-haired manager of a local diner, obliges.
She's ringing up a cheeseburger deluxe with a glistening pile of fries. Lips purse, eyelids narrow, she peers over her glasses in that worldly, I-seen-it-all way. She'll tell you about this Hillary and this Rudy.
"Why do I like her? Because she's a lady. She's been through a lot I wouldn't take."
"Rudy Giuliani? Hitler died and left him in his place. That's what I think."
O-kay, let's walk up the street.
There's Bernice Goldstein coming out of Lazar's Chocolate Shop, white-haired, a diminutive Democrat, and very active in civic affairs, as she will tell you at some length. These Senate candidates are not wonderful. "She comes from out of state, he's hard to get along with," she says. "What's to like?"
A curious fact: Popular imagery posits Hillary as a feminist icon. But statewide polls find that more men than women support her. In Gino's Pizza, Mary Sweeney juggles a 2-year-old and a baby, tries to eat a slice, and enough already about the first lady.
"So she handled Lewinsky well. What was she going to do, argue the point? He did it, she stayed with him. So great for her. That's why I'm supposed to vote for her?"
Males tend toward a more celebratory view of the first lady, though their reasoning falls a couple yards short of edifying. It's the "women are from Venus, men are from the cave" dichotomy.
Alfredo Molinari, a stout son of the Amalfi coast and manager of Gino's Pizza, watched Clinton's entourage whisk through Great Neck a couple months back. Hillary didn't stop for a slice but he's voting for her anyway.
"I wish her a lot of luck because she's very nice to her husband," Molinari says. "Bill Clinton, he's a good guy, too. If it's me, I do the same thing. You get the chance with a girl, it's a risk you got to take . . . ."
For more of the male's-eye view of the political universe, take a ride 30 minutes south on the Cross Island Expressway to Long Beach. South Shore, working-class bungalows and aluminum siding, prewar apartment buildings, glatt kosher restaurants and lots of terrific places to eat crabs and lobsters.
Sea salt's scent hangs heavy in the damp grayness. Open the door to the Lido Bagel shop, and every retiree has a Catskills routine.
Murray Silver's got 85 years and a pumpernickel bagel with whitefish and a cup of coffee. He's a retired jeweler, a lifelong liberal Democrat, and what's not to like about the first lady?
"Smart. Top-quality lady. How she handled that stuff was great--a normal woman would have started a rumpus. She just let it go."
Stanley Sheldon ambles across the linoleum floor without lifting his feet, a geriatric skater. He's got an onion bagel with a lox-cream cheese smear and an opinion to go. He's 76 and an independent.
"From a distance she looks great"--he gives a practiced pause--"maybe she gets closer, I change my mind. President Clinton? He likes to fool around? So what, so do I."
Sheldon catches his wife of 58 years rolling her eyes.
"Just a joke, Millie. At my age, I'm very satisfied with what I got."
But what Sheldon says next is the first lady's suburbs problem, writ small. A free-love White House may tickle his fancy, but Sheldon likes what this Rottweiler mayor has wrought next door. The old neighborhood--he grew up on the Lower East Side a half-dozen decades ago--looks pretty good. No more broken car windows. The squeegee men are gone, the homeless have retreated and the highways look clean.
"I don't like what he does half the time but the city looks okay," Sheldon says. "I have to think about this vote."
It's a backdoor take on the carpetbagger question. Sixteen percent of voters tell Quinnipiac pollsters it bugs them that she hasn't passed a legal day of residency in the state. But the problem runs deeper. Even voters who say that a new arrival is okay give extra credit to a pol who has dealt with life in the New York fun house.
Can't Stand Him
Not all the tides are going out on Hillary.
Nassau County for years was Boss Daley Chicago gone suburban. You want a municipal job? You join the Republican Party. You want a summer job mowing lawns at Jones Beach State Park? You join the Republican Party. New York's frog prince Al D'Amato ran the thing even after he went to Washington as a U.S. senator. Then he got defeated and started dating thirtysomething sex columnists and the Democrats took over the county legislature this fall.
Take Merrick. Middle-class, malls, beautiful supermarkets, and Republican. Or not.
"I'm a Republican committeeman but I think Hillary has a good shot here," says Fred Weiss as he loads groceries into his car. "We aren't as strong as we used to be."
Then, too, there's Giuliani's personality. Listen to him castigate another transit worker and it's like rubbing the temples with sandpaper. Doris Fey rolls her cart to the door of Waldbaum's Supermarket. She's 84 and a lifelong Democrat. But Hillary, she's from Arkansas. Fey dislikes Giuliani, but she just might join her friends and vote for him.
Even if he's officious and gives her a headache. Even if "he wants to close the Brooklyn Museum and he won't let people strike. And he's just mean to the homeless." She's shaking her head now.
"No, the more I think about it, I Really Can't Stand Him. I'm voting for Hillary. Thanks for listening while I made up my mind."
New York politics, where hate trumps love every time.
CAPTION: A New York state of mind: Alfredo Molinari, manager of Gino's Pizza in Great Neck, Long Island, explains his sympathy for Hillary Clinton.
CAPTION: Retired jeweler Murray Silver calls Hillary Clinton a "top-quality lady."