Hillary Rodham Clinton launched her seemingly inevitable Senate campaign today by taking on the all-important carpetbagger issue, conceding New Yorkers have "legitimate questions" about her out-of-state candidacy but pledging to convince them she would be a "strong and effective advocate" for their interests.
At a wide-ranging news conference with retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) on his rolling 900-acre farm, the first lady sidestepped a media mob's questions about the Monica S. Lewinsky saga and her bonanza in the cattle futures market. She made only one, passing reference to her husband, who was visiting an Indian reservation in South Dakota while she was kicking off her first bid for elected office, and none to Vice President Gore.
But Hillary Clinton was certainly more accessible than usual, and she patiently answered several biting questions about carpetbagging. She laughed heartily when a reporter suggested there might be an element of chutzpah to her quest to represent a state in which she has never lived, and even conceded there probably is. "I understand that characteristic is not all bad, in certain parts of New York," Clinton said with a broad smile. "I may need a lot of that."
The opening day of Clinton's first, four-day "listening tour" of New York drew more attention than most presidential campaign kickoffs, with four busloads of about 300 journalists trailing the first lady at Moynihan's farm and an education "listening session" at the State University of New York at Oneonta. With a smaller group of reporters in tow, Clinton also visited a barbecue joint and the Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta.
It was clear that for now, at least, Clinton's residency status is Topic A for her campaign, though she obviously hopes it will fade as an issue over the next 16 months. At every stop today, protesters greeted her with signs such as "Hillary Listen: Go Home!" and "A New Yorker For New York." Her already besieged campaign spokesman, Howard Wolfson, kept repeating a mantra: Where she stands is more important than where she lives. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, her likely GOP opponent, continued to ridicule her newfound interest in the state. And even before anyone had a chance to ask, Clinton acknowledged "the questions on everyone's mind: Why the Senate? Why New York? Why me?"
The answer, she said, is that New Yorkers have a deep interest in such issues as education, health care and job creation, and that she has been a "tireless advocate" on those issues for her entire adult life.
"It's a fair question, and I fully understand people raising it," Clinton said. "I think I have some real work to do, to get out and listen and learn from the people of New York, and to demonstrate that what I'm for is as important if not more important than where I'm from. . . . Hopefully, I'll be able to make it clear that I'd be a very strong and effective advocate for the people of New York."
New York has sent out-of-state candidates to the Senate before, most memorably Robert F. Kennedy in 1964, but Clinton conceded that her immediate thought when she was first approached about running here was: "That seems like a very strange idea." She said she was "very humbled and more than a little surprised" to be the only Democratic contender for the seat. But she said that the more New Yorkers encouraged her to run, the more it began to make sense. "Ultimately, New Yorkers will decide if it's a good idea," she said.
Significantly, Clinton chose to begin her listening tour by listening to the man she hopes to succeed, whom she oddly described as "probably the wisest New Yorker that we can know of at this time."
Moynihan has had a rocky relationship with the administration. He described the first lady's health care plan as "fantasy" in 1993, and later he became the first Democratic senator to call for an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater. But today, after meeting with her in the one-room schoolhouse where he has written 18 books -- and wryly noting that an 1856 inventory of the schoolhouse library included "Paradise Lost" and "Pilgrim's Progress" -- he offered a short but warm endorsement of "the candidate."
"I hope she will go all the way," Moynihan said. "I mean to go all the way with her."
After the event, they walked off arm-in-arm, Moynihan looking gaunt in his blue oxford shirt and bright white pants and Clinton looking vibrant in a navy pantsuit. It was a poignant moment that suggested a changing of the guard.
"We've had an amazing senator for a long time," said Delaware County Democratic Chairman James Wood, who showed up wearing a Bill Clinton tie with a Mickey Mouse pin. "Now it's Hillary's turn."
Giuliani, who is clearly thinking about his turn, was asked today by reporters about Clinton's venture. "It doesn't make sense for me to respond to someone exploring and listening and announcing that they're going to explain to us at some point in the future what they're for. When she explains what she's for and if I'm running against her, then I will respond to that," he said. "Everybody in the city and state knows what I'm for."
Clinton plans to spend the next three days and most of the summer listening to New Yorkers in small groups -- "no major speeches, no major rallies," Wolfson said -- but today's remarkable media crush was a stark reminder that this will be no ordinary Senate race and that the first lady will have a tough time conducting normal retail politics. She did have a few spontaneous moments: At a rest stop she pointed out to two girls named Heather and Harleigh that all of their names begin with H, and during the education forum, she at times seemed to get so entranced by discussions of teacher shortages and Internet access and home visitation programs that she forgot about the cameras.
But far more typical was her comment after the event at the Moynihan farm, when 5-year-old Elizabeth Gallaer offered her some orange day lilies: "Elizabeth, would you mind doing what they call a photo op?"
The other indication of Day One is that Clinton is going to face some questions she would rather not answer. One reporter asked whether she thinks the Lewinsky scandal will make her a more sympathetic candidate. She merely replied that New Yorkers will make their own judgments. Another reporter asked about the $99,000 windfall she once made in the cattle futures market. She said she thinks voters have "moved beyond that." She passed off a question about the controversial redesign of the Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Canada to Moynihan, saying she would "let the expert speak on that." And she seemed to go out of her way to avoid talking about her husband, at one point discussing in the passive voice how proud she was of "what has been accomplished for this country" in the last 6 1/2 years.
Overall, Clinton seemed energized by the race, but she also seemed to recognize the absurdity of this unprecedented spectacle: "I'm really excited about taking these long, beautiful summer days at a leisurely pace -- you know, with a few hundred of you -- to travel from place to place and meet people."
Tonight, the newly declared Yankees fan visited the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Thursday, she will get to meet people in Cooperstown and Utica. Friday, she will travel to Rome, Syracuse and Albany. Her aides hope New Yorkers will get used to thinking of her as one of them, even if she did grow up in Illinois and spend her professional life in Arkansas and Washington.
That might take some time, though. Before Clinton's lunch at Brooks Bar-B-Q in Oneonta, there was a screaming match in the restaurant lobby. "Go home, Hillary!" one man shouted.
"You go home!" another patron responded.
"I live here," the man replied. "I'm not the one running for Senate."
CAPTION: First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton greets supporters at the Binghamton, N.Y., airport yesterday.
CAPTION: Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) speaks to a media throng after showing Hillary Rodham Clinton, who hopes to succeed him, around his farm near Davenport, N.Y.