"So the answer is yes."
It's a relief, especially to New York Democrats, that the endless, pointless speculation over whether Hillary Rodham Clinton would run for the United States Senate is over. We're about to see whether the most improbable political leap in our history -- from First Ladyhood to membership in the Greatest Deliberative Body in the World -- is actually possible.
To assess her chances, begin by junking some pieces of conventional wisdom.
You can already hear the moaning: Oh, what will we do without a First Lady? We'll do just fine. The Constitution says nothing about a First Lady. She has no official functions. You needn't worry how President Clinton will fare at state dinners on nights Mrs. Clinton finds herself in Cohoes, Rockaway or Big Flats. Anyway, Chelsea will be a fine stand-in.
Mrs. Clinton, it's said, just isn't the campaigner her husband is. Well, nobody is the campaigner her husband is. My survey of smart New York politicians finds a lot of tough and skeptical professionals impressed with Hillary on the trail.
"She's extraordinarily engaging," says Assemblyman Pete Grannis, a Manhattan Democrat. "She's a lot warmer, more personally engaging, than her TV image is," says Martin Connor, the Democratic minority leader in the state Senate. "She really connected with people," says Democratic Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, who hosted Mrs. Clinton in her upstate district centered on Utica and Rome. Democrat Michael Bragman, the Assembly majority leader, refers to her "star power."
A bunch of Democrats in the tank for Hillary? Not exactly. Democrats are worried sick about her chances. She was forced to announce she was getting in because so many Democrats wearied of the messes she was creating by not getting in.
State Comptroller Carl McCall, a leading Democratic vote-getter, practically pushed her into Tuesday's announcement with public statements pronouncing her phantom candidacy a disaster. "It was very frustrating," a relieved McCall said hours after Mrs. Clinton said yes. "I think she's a very good candidate, and I think she's going to win. But the question you always ran into was: Is she going to run?"
"It hasn't been helpful," said Connor, "to have this speculation these last few weeks about: Will she or won't she?"
The last straw, of course, was Mrs. Clinton's public tete-a-tete in Ramallah with Suha Arafat, the Palestinian leader's wife. Mrs. Arafat fulminated against Israel, alleging it used poison gas against Palestinians, a groundless charge. Mrs. Clinton not only stayed silent during their joint appearance but also gave Israel's accuser a hug. Yes, yes, Mrs. Clinton's defenders could say the translation of Mrs. Arafat's comments was faulty and that the first lady didn't want to muck up the Middle East peace talks. She owes a lifelong debt to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for defending her on these grounds.
But as Connor says, you don't need to be a high-priced consultant to know that "nobody who was running for the United States Senate in the state of New York would have been on a platform with Mrs. Arafat." Excuse me, but: Duh. Abandoning First Ladyhood means never having to go to the West Bank again, except perhaps to celebrate a peace treaty that might win some votes.
Is Mrs. Clinton in trouble? You bet. "I think Rudy has the upper hand," says Grannis. "She has to redefine her reasons for running, take care of the carpetbagging issue and develop a clear message for why people upstate should support her. . . . I think people are still trying to figure out if this is just someone looking for something to do after the White House."
"What's the longest amount of time she's spent in New York?" asks a gleeful John Ravitz, the Republican minority whip in the state Assembly. "She can't be putting on any Yankee hats any time too soon."
But because she is running against the mayor of New York City, Mrs. Clinton's one greatly undervalued asset is that she's a Midwesterner. Yes, you read that right.
Bragman thinks that since Mrs. Clinton will do well in New York City (on a wave of minority votes) and well enough in its suburbs, the election will be decided in upstate New York. As it happens, upstate more resembles her native Illinois than it does Giuliani's Gotham.
Destito of Rome and Utica summarizes the situation nicely by annexing a classic Illinois burg into her part of New York state. "Joliet," she says, "is an upstate city." The betting now is that Mrs. Clinton could lose because she's a carpetbagger. But in what will be a very strange race, that is precisely why she can win.