Hillary Rodham Clinton may be an out-of-towner, but she is moving fast to prove her fund-raising prowess in New York.
She held her first Senate fund-raising meeting Wednesday night, followed up by a $1,000-a-head breakfast this morning. Already a group of core supporters is planning an Oct. 25 birthday bash/fund-raiser. A Hamptons party, most likely headlined by President Clinton, will be held the last weekend in August.
Even wedding dress designer extraordinaire Vera Wang, once better known in Republican circles, has offered to host a brunch at her home.
"The cult around her [Hillary Clinton] is Kennedy-like," said John Catsimatidis, chief executive of the food and oil conglomerate Red Apple Group and one of New York's biggest Democratic fund-raisers. "People can't do enough for her."
Catsimatidis is on a new finance committee being formed by the first lady. He and about 20 other supporters met Wednesday evening at the Park Avenue office of Patricof & Co. Ventures to discuss how to raise $25 million to move Hillary Clinton into the seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Patricof, one of the biggest venture capital firms in the country, is owned by two of Clinton's biggest supporters: Alan Patricof and his wife, Susan.
Alan Patricof is acting as Clinton's informal finance chairman, overseeing a powerful group of advisers. They include high-profile Democrats and some low-key political newcomers, mainly women who not only agree with Clinton's stand on family issues but also are determined to have a role in ushering the first woman into a New York Senate seat.
"There are a lot of tremendous, vibrant women in New York, but it is very hard to rise into the top offices here," said Ellen Chesler, a prominent writer and longtime Clinton friend. "It takes $25 million."
Clinton -- who has served as a major fund-raising draw for the Democratic Party and candidates during her husband's two terms in office -- is laying the groundwork for amassing that sum. Earlier this month, she mailed a "Dear Friend" letter to nearly 2 million people. "You may not be able to travel across New York with me, but in a very real sense, I am counting on you to be by my side," the letter said.
She has also made hundreds of calls directly, including many from the White House. A spokesman said she is using a private line and her cellular phone.
Among those attending the small meeting Wednesday were President Clinton's former chief of staff, Erskine B. Bowles, former deputy treasury secretary Roger Altman, and Washington lobbyist Liz Robbins, along with investment bankers Stan Shuman and Steven Rattner and Rattner's wife, Maureen White, a prominent Democratic activist.
Clinton's fund-raising is being guided by the man who helped propel her husband to victory, Terry McAuliffe, and Gabrielle Fialkoff, a veteran New York fund-raiser. Also on board is Harvey Weinstein, the chief of Miramax Films, and his wife, Eve. Eve Weinstein is not typically known for taking an active role in politics. Now, friends say, she has vowed: "I'll do anything to get Hillary into office."
This morning, Patricof presided over a second meeting at the giant New York law firm Skadden Arps, drawing some 75 people, including playwright Eve Ensler, who wrote "The Vagina Monologues," Geraldine Laybourne of Oxygen Media, Martha Stewart Living chief executive Sharon Patrick, and Toby Nussbaum, wife of former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum.
"After all my years in politics, you'd think I'd be nuts to do this," several attendees recalled Hillary Clinton saying.
Apparently they did not. Many contributed $1,000 to talk, listen and volunteer. "I'm going to write letters and co-host events and however else I can be useful," said Beth DeWoody of Rudin Management Co., a real estate firm.
The meeting was organized by Skadden partner Mark Kaplan, a longtime Hillary friend who rented the space from his firm, the same vast conference room where the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last year oversaw the rescue of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management.
At the smaller meeting Wednesday, one woman asked Hillary Clinton how she would address the Monica S. Lewinsky question, according to several supporters who were holed up in the black-and-white conference room. The room became tense. "I almost fell off my chair," said one attendee.
Clinton responded quickly, saying she supports the president "110 percent" and is "very upset" that people have tried to use this to destroy him.
At the meetings she said she expects to raise $8 million outside New York. Her presence in New York City has concerned some of Vice President Gore's advisers.
"When you write a check to Hillary, you feel like you're writing it to the administration," said Catsimatidis. "I do believe it will hurt Gore's campaign."
But some fund-raisers who are making calls for Gore and Clinton say that their job is simplified. "You just pick up the phone," said one, "and say, you've already given for Gore, can you give for Hillary?"
CAPTION: In Great Neck Wednesday, on her "listening tour" of New York, first lady Hillary Clinton meets with David R. Dantzker, president of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.