Should the first lady run for the Senate from New York?

Republicans have come down hard on the idea, but most of them would oppose her election as town librarian. The more interesting question is: What do Democrats think?

Few Democrats will express their qualms about her Senate candidacy publicly, and not just because picking a fight with the first family is impolitic. Democrats are loath to give comfort to -- pardon me -- the vast right-wing conspiracy by questioning Hillary Clinton.

But give Democrats a chance to talk when their names won't be attached to their words, and you find a lot of unease about her Senate adventure. Here's the result of my survey of seven Democratic campaign veterans -- most of them fans of Mrs. Clinton.

Can she win? Of course she can. The Republicans seem to be cooperating by moving toward a divisive primary between New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Rick Lazio of Long Island.

But there is also unanimity that she could lose. Two consultants I spoke with argued that Rep. Nita Lowey, who bowed out of the race in deference to Mrs. Clinton, might be the stronger candidate.

Why? If Giuliani is the Republican candidate, his record and outsized personality would normally make him the issue. But if Mrs. Clinton runs, said one consultant, "you make Hillary Clinton the issue instead of Giuliani." Who needs all the speculation about why she is doing this and what it has to do with her relationship with her husband?

Then there's carpetbagging -- "a more serious problem for her than Whitewater," said one pollster.

Robert F. Kennedy's election to the Senate in 1964 by no means proved New Yorkers love voting for out-of-staters. Yes, RFK defeated Republican Sen. Ken Keating by 719,000 votes. But he did so as Lyndon Johnson was carrying the state over Barry Goldwater by more than 2.6 million votes. That 1.9 million vote difference is worth thinking about. Keating's slogan, by the way, was: "New York's Own."

Will she hurt other Democrats, especially Al Gore? "I don't go with all this crepe-hanging," said one consultant. Gore, he said, will stand or fall on his own.

Not so, said another adviser. "Absent her running, the overwhelming priority of the administration would have been electing Al Gore. Now you've got a three-ring circus at the White House -- Clinton's working on his legacy, Gore's running for president, and Mrs. Clinton is running for the Senate. If you think the most important thing Democrats can do is elect Al Gore, this is a terrible idea." The generally good reviews of Gerge W. Bush's campaign kickoff -- it reached New Hampshire yesterday -- make that issue a trifle more urgent.

Some argued that Mrs. Clinton would pull money away from the rest of the party. But one consultant noted that she "would open up pocketbooks that might not otherwise be open."

Will her candidacy promote Clinton Fatigue and reopen the Clinton Psychodrama? This is the Big Fear. The consultants think that if her foes harp too much on scandal, she'll benefit. "If they create a garbage dump around Hillary, they're going to pay the price," argued one. Whether that analysis applies to the impending actions of independent counsel Kenneth Starr (whatever they turn out to be) remains to be seen. "She's paid more than anyone should for somebody else's shortcomings, and I think people will want to hear her on her own terms," said another.

But the same consultant worries that Mrs. Clinton's candidacy would feed Clinton Fatigue: "I don't think people want this act to go on a lot longer." Her running, said a media adviser, would be a "reminder" of "why we want something different from more Clinton stuff."

What has she got to lose? Mrs. Clinton is said by friends to believe the only way to create a legitimate "platform" for her views is to win ratification from voters. That's a fine democratic sentiment. But several of my informants argued she already has such a platform.

"But for running here, she could be a spectacular worldwide figure," said one. "And now she's going to be in the muck of a New York Senate race." To win, said another, she'll have to run a partially negative campaign, which can only diminish her current prestige.

And you know this: If Mrs. Clinton loses, the vast right-wing conspiracy will make more hay than Archer Daniels Midland makes ethanol. "Her defeat will be seen as a defeat for feminism, for liberalism, not just a defeat for her personally," said one consultant. For Republicans, this Democrat said, beating the first lady "would be like us beating Jesse Helms."

Most Democrats, of course, would cheer if Mrs. Clinton won and their party kept the White House. But the risks her candidacy carries are not just to herself. Her friends hope that's something she's thinking about.