During one of her now-familiar "listening events" with the New Yorkers she hopes will support her Senate bid, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had a lot to say about guns and children. Speaking in support of anti-gun education programs contained in legislation sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), her hostess on this day on Long Island, Clinton said: "When it comes to education programs, there also can be federal assistance. . . . There should be federal funding. . . . There has to be some real effort made to ensure that New York gets its fair share."
To at least one member of the media throng following the virtual candidate around New York state, it sounded like a campaign proposal. So the local reporter cornered Clinton's spokesman for more details. How much would such programs cost? Where would the money come from?
With a slightly bemused expression, the spokesman, Howard Wolfson, slowed down the eager scribe. "You're making too much of this," he said. These are not actual campaign proposals, he explained, but merely "good ideas" favored by Clinton.
Despite all the attention to Clinton's virtual campaign over the past two weeks, it has thus far lacked clear-cut policy planks. Clinton's general issues as first lady -- health care, education, families -- are well known, in some detail. But just what she stands for in New York has so far been hazy -- and will remain so for weeks if not months to come, campaign aides say. It is a deliberate campaign strategy: to appear to be following New Yorkers, not leading them, at least not yet.
"I think New Yorkers think it would be wrong to start by offering proposals," said Mandy Grunwald, a key Clinton adviser.
The trick for Clinton will be finding the right moment to pivot more sharply toward the issues without appearing too arrogant. After all, Clinton already labors against the perception that she is a carpetbagger, that she is a celebrity candidate, that all she's after is status in her own right, separate from her problem-plagued husband.
New York's many constituencies -- upstate, downstate, city, suburban, to name just a few -- are notoriously touchy and will become increasingly impatient to learn what Clinton stands for as the campaign progresses, said John Zogby of Zogby International, a polling firm with offices in the upstate New York town of Utica as well as in Washington.
"I don't know that she needs to get into specifics yet, but she's going to have to get into specifics a lot earlier than a normal candidate," said Zogby. "This is a Kabuki dance she's going to have to do. On one hand, she has to show she cares and on the other hand she's got to show she's not above the crowd."
The unprecedented Clinton campaign, launched last week with the establishment of an exploratory committee, is not a normal campaign. No other sitting first lady has run for office. Few candidates in recent memory have had their names so fully mired in official and personal controversy as hers. She is a non-New Yorker who is a deeply knowledgeable thinker on a range of issues, but with no proven political record.
During her listening events last week, Clinton spoke on a range of issues, always with her guests seeming to set the issues agenda, and always in sympathy with or in praise of their views. She expressed clear support for, among other issues, a Democratic patients' bill of rights that was shot down in the Senate last week. She said she firmly supports the tax deductibility of all college tuition, and she backed putting more police officers on city streets.
All those issues, however, were mere brush strokes in the effort to paint her as a sympathetic and competent figure who may not be a real daughter of New York but sure could fight for it. It is an uphill struggle, potentially pitting Clinton against Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, known as a gloves-off political fighter.
"Right now, the personalities are driving the electorate," said Lee Miringoff of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "You have a Rudy Giuliani who lacks temperament and a Hillary Clinton who lacks resonance."
For all the hype that has surrounded Clinton's warm-fuzzy listening events, the latest Marist poll shows Clinton trailing Giuliani. The combative mayor was the voters' choice by 47 percent of Marist respondents, compared with Clinton's 41 percent. The sample in that poll was only 515 voters, and the margin of error was 4.5 percentage points. A poll by Zogby International with a slightly larger sample -- 705 people who were likely voters -- showed a wider Giuliani lead: 50 percent to 40 percent.
Numerous issues hang in the political ether and could quickly become big pluses or minuses for Clinton's bid: her statement last year in support of a Palestinian state; her failed health care reform effort of the early 1990s; her role in the string of scandals, controversies and probes that have plagued the Clinton White House years.
New Yorkers will judge for themselves what all this means and what all this makes Clinton. For now the challenge she faces came through in the comments of Vincent Beni, superintendent of schools of Irvington, N.Y., and a self-described political independent. After hearing Clinton discuss education during her "listening event" at the Westchester Community College on Tuesday, Beni was both skeptical and laudatory.
"She's smooth," he said, shaking his head, "but she's got an incredible grasp of New York issues already."
Some, however, are frustrated at the absence of policy precision on some issues. During the forum on gun violence, Clinton repeatedly tore into the National Rifle Association and its huge clout in Congress.
But when a journalist asked flat-out if she was for or against gun ownership, Clinton talked about wanting more comprehensive gun control legislation -- but never answered the question.
Later a woman in Clinton's small audience was overheard complaining to a friend about the first lady's performance. Though she had participated in the group discussion from the audience, the woman did not want to identify herself. On the issue of openness, the woman was peeved that Clinton did not answer the gun ownership question.
"She doesn't want to tick off the upstate constituency," the woman said, referring to the more conservative and traditionally Republican region far north of the city. "You can't have it both ways. You're either for it or against it."