President Clinton became the third president to visit the New York State Fair today--Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were the first two--but fair-goers here seemed far more interested in the president's traveling companion, first lady and probable Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Hillary Clinton worked the fair like a woman determined to win the Senate seat to be vacated by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.)--even though she has yet to formally announce her candidacy--while the president dutifully played the role of political spouse.
In other words, he waited around. He waited for his wife to finish shaking hands along the rope line. He waited while she chatted with the sales staff at Baker's Chicken Coop. He waited while she passed out paper cups of white and chocolate milk at the Rainbow Milk Bar. He waited while she got her hand kissed by an eager local hairdresser.
And he waited, smiling, while New York State Assembly Majority Leader Michael Bragman (D) welcomed the first couple to a luncheon hosted by New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall with an impassioned speech directed almost entirely at the first lady.
"President Clinton, we welcome you with equal, equal enthusiasm," Bragman said, to gales of laughter, after finishing his remarks to Hillary Clinton with a seeming endorsement of her Senate candidacy. "We look forward to the time when we can call you New York's very own."
The Clintons, along with daughter Chelsea, made the stop at the fairgrounds on their way to their third, and final, vacation destination--picturesque Skaneateles, a tiny town in the nearby Finger Lakes. The first family plans to spend five nights at the lakeside estate of builder Thomas McDonald before returning to Washington.
Hillary Clinton described the family's visit to central New York as a chance to "have time as a family, meet a lot of great people, I hope, and [the president]'s going to get to play golf." He may be able to do just that--the only public events on their schedule are two fund-raisers nearby for the first lady on Thursday.
Like the Clintons' decision to spend part of their vacation in New York state, today's visit to the fair appeared designed to put the first lady in the spotlight. And it seemed to work. A reporter walking through the fairgrounds wearing a press badge this afternoon repeatedly was stopped by fair-goers who wanted to know "Is she here yet?" or "Where is she?" Not one questioner asked about the president.
Hillary Clinton also garnered most of the crowd's attention as she and her husband and Chelsea wandered through the exhibits and food stands. One man, Robert E. Lenz, offered Hillary Clinton two $50 bills if she would declare her candidacy on the spot (she demurred). Another, local hairstylist Richard Ferris, gushed that meeting the first lady was "the most exciting thing that ever happened to me" and, after kissing her hand, loudly proclaimed, "And I want to DO her hair!"
For her part, Hillary Clinton frequently alluded to her possible Senate bid, telling one woman "I'll be back next year," and responding to a man's offer of campaign support with "I'll need your help."
"I am pleased that I might have a chance of continuing what New York has represented," she said in a brief luncheon speech, during which she also referred to New York as "the center of whatever is happening--not just in the country, but in the world."
In her speech, she made note of high airfares and electric power costs in central New York--two important issues among residents of this part of the state--and won points from the crowd for knowing that today is "Seniors Day" and "Dairy Day" at the fair. "We'll try to eat some cheese and see some seniors, too," she pledged.
Following his wife to the lectern, President Clinton joked that it's "pretty nice to go to a lunch like this when you're the only one not running for anything." He then told stories of past fair visits, including an outing to a county fair in Arkansas where he wound up riding in a rodeo while dressed in wingtips and a pinstriped suit. He also took time to reiterate his call for a "modest and targeted" tax cut, arguing that the federal budget surplus would be better spent on Social Security and Medicaid.
The Clintons started their visit to central New York with a big welcome at Syracuse Hancock International Airport, where they were greeted by about 2,300 people--the largest crowd of New Yorkers to see Hillary Clinton since she announced her possible Senate run. Following the visit to the fair, the Clintons traveled to Skaneateles, where the presidential motorcade made an unscheduled stop at a roadside lemonade stand bearing a sign that read: "Lemonade. Clintons are free. (Anyone else 25 cents)."
The president and first lady accepted the free lemonade and posed for pictures with the two boys running the stand, 12-year-old Ian and 9-year-old Dylan Joyce. Then the motorcade proceeded to the McDonald estate, where the first family held hands--with the president in the middle--as they walked down the driveway. Asked, a few minutes before, if he was giving his wife campaign tips, the president said, "I think she's doing pretty well without any help from me."
CAPTION: Hillary Clinton greets Cheryn Alletzhauser at Syracuse Hancock International Airport.