As first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton began her "listening tour" of New York last week, Republicans outside the state were increasingly fearful that a divisive GOP primary next year could doom their chances of capturing the Democratic-held Senate seat.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, aired those concerns during a weekend interview on CNN's "Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields." "We'd like for the New York Republicans to get together and not have a serious primary, because we think that would hurt our chances," he said.

McConnell had kind words for New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who many GOP leaders believe would be their strongest candidate against the first lady, and his public comments seemed to underscore the desire of many party leaders to clear a path for Giuliani to become the nominee.

Giuliani, who hasn't formally entered the race, faces a potential opponent for the GOP nomination in Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.). But there have been efforts to encourage both New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) and former senator Alfonse M. D'Amato to weigh in on Giuliani's behalf. The problem is, both men have feuded with the mayor for years and don't appear anxious to help him.

"There is a strong potential Republicans could lose that seat," one GOP strategist said. "[There are] all kinds of face-saving ways out of the box. The question is: Will enough people weigh in with Pataki so that it will have an impact?"

Republican state chairmen and other governors are said to be worried but are reluctant to meddle in New York's internal politics. Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson has spoken with a number of New York Republicans to impress upon them the importance of winning the seat. GOP leaders also have encouraged friends of D'Amato to speak with him.

So far the efforts have gotten nowhere. One knowledgeable Republican said both Pataki and D'Amato point to the other as the problem. That has left many Republicans despairing over their chances of defeating the first lady.

"It's humorous if it wasn't so serious," the Republican said.

Hillary Clinton's Gallup Numbers: Down

As for the first lady, a new Gallup Poll shows that her long run-up to a formal campaign hasn't done much for her public image. Americans remain divided over whether they would like to see her in the Senate, with 45 percent saying they would vote for her if they lived in New York and 52 percent saying they would not.

But over the last few months, her public image nationally has declined. The latest Gallup Poll shows 56 percent of those surveyed have a favorable impression of her, while 42 percent have an unfavorable opinion -- the highest level in two years.

The Gallup analysis is that the public had more sympathy for her when she was the aggrieved spouse during the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation than they do now that she is a political candidate.

Kasich's Word of the Day: Reassessing

Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) is reassessing whether to abandon his 2000 presidential bid.

"We haven't decided what to do," Kasich told supporter Bob Piotrowski in Milford, N.H., according to Reuters. "But when we do, you'll be one of the first 10 million or so to know it."

Kasich raised just $600,000 for his presidential campaign during the second quarter of this year, and has been relying heavily on transfers from his House account.

GOP pundit Tony Blankley said in an interview yesterday that Kasich may make a decision this week.

Spokesman Todd Harris said Kasich still planned to travel to Iowa next weekend as part of his exploratory tour. "The fact is every morning when we open the mail we begin a period of assessment," Harris said. "We're still assessing and we're still exploring."

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.