When Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) angrily declared this week that he would not support first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's prospective New York Senate race because of her opposition to clemency for Puerto Rican militants, it probably meant little in practical terms. New York Latinos are only 6 percent of the state's voters and are solidly Democratic, so it was unlikely, analysts say, that a fit of pique would trigger an electoral exodus.
But the sequence of events that prompted Serrano's scolding is symptomatic of the on-the-job learning curve that candidate Clinton is confronting as she strikes out on the novel path of a first lady seeking high public office.
An accumulating list of missteps -- from the way she admittedly bungled the clemency issue to the amending of her views on the Mideast to her Talk magazine interview on her husband's fidelity problems -- shows how Clinton is still struggling to adjust to the intense glare of the New York political arena. While seasoned enough politically to know the campaign would be difficult and contentious in theory, she has seemed slow to grasp how sharp the cut and thrust would be in practice -- and how her every move would be subject to scrutiny and second-guessing, according to political analysts.
Clinton is displaying a typical first-time candidate's problem, says former Oklahoma Republican congressman Mickey Edwards, now a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
"This is what happens when you can't keep your mouth shut," Edwards said. "You get in trouble. . . . I call it bubble-gum mouth: You put in a nickel, and something comes out. It's just like they feel compelled to talk."
Today, Clinton tried to put to rest the flap over her opposition to her husband's decision to offer clemency to 16 Puerto Rican militants. During her visit to the third annual World of Women Leaders Conference in Manhattan, a network of minority business women, she was asked by a Hispanic panelist who her New York Hispanic advisers are and whether she spoke to them before announcing her clemency position.
For the first time, Clinton acknowledged that she made a mistake in handling the issue. While ignoring the first question, as she often does, her response to the second bordered on an apology -- not for her stand itself, but how it was conveyed.
"I have to admit that the consultation process was not what it should have been," she said, "and that will never happen again."
Also today, a conservative group charged that Clinton violated federal election law in having Democratic fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe co-sign for the first family's $1.7 million New York home. The complaint, filed with the Federal Election Commission by the Conservative Campaign Fund, alleges that personal loans and guarantees for personal loans have always been treated the same as campaign contributions and are subject to the same $1,000 limit, the Associated Press reported.
Clinton's campaign spokesman, Howard Wolfson, called the loan guarantee "perfectly legal and appropriate" and said it is "not surprising that a right-wing special interest group would be attacking Hillary Clinton. We expect that will happen quite a bit."
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Clinton's likely opponent in the Senate race, has characterized Clinton as a candidate running against herself. Citing polls that began to narrow throughout the summer from her wide early lead to a dead heat, he noted recently, "The longer she runs against herself, the better we do."
And nationally, the picture is the same: Fewer people are thinking favorably of the first lady these days. While 59 percent of respondents nationwide had a favorable view of her in June, only 49 percent do now, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Every campaign has its teething problems and its ups and downs in the polls. But Clinton's campaign in many ways defies the ordinary: She is running her first campaign in a state where she is a political outsider and while her husband still is president. She has decades of seasoning in political service and back-room politicking, but that background did not necessarily prepare her to be a good campaigner.
"The question I would have if I was part of her campaign team is whether or not she truly understands that the rules that she has learned over the years may not be applicable at all or may be only partially applicable in this situation," said Darry Sragow, former strategist for the failed California gubernatorial bid last year of businessman Al Checchi, another Democratic candidate who sought high political office in his first campaign.
Voters will tolerate mistakes by first-time candidates, Sragow said, "provided you learn. You're allowed to make mistakes early on. You're allowed to make mistakes once. You're not allowed to make mistakes twice."
In a state where politics and ethnicity go hand in hand, Clinton has already caused ruffles on sensitive ethnic issues.
In a position publicly revealed in July, she described Jerusalem as the "eternal capital" of Israel. This was a break with Clinton administration policy, which is for the status of Jerusalem to be determined by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Some critics accused her of trying to placate Jews riled by her earlier support of a Palestinian state.
The debacle over the FALN clemencies was the latest such abrasive ethnic episode. Though Clinton had not staked out a position on the issue, her silence had been perceived as tacit support of her husband's Aug. 11 offer of conditional clemencies to 16 imprisoned militants of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, known by its Spanish initials FALN. In the 1970s and 1980s, the FALN used a violent campaign, including bombings, to press for Puerto Rican independence and an end to its commonwealth status. The 16 who are imprisoned were not convicted of any violent acts or for involvement in any of the six deaths and scores of injuries attributed to the FALN. Numerous religious and human rights figures had campaigned for their release, on the grounds that their sentences -- ranging from 35 to 90 years -- were excessive.
But the clemencies have been sharply criticized by law enforcement officials. Though the president first received the clemency issue in 1993, his critics immediately pointed to Hillary Clinton's unofficial candidacy in New York as the reason her husband granted the clemencies now. They suggested it was an effort to curry favor with the Puerto Rican voters in New York.
When the first lady weighed in last Saturday with unsolicited opposition to the clemency offer, Puerto Rican politicians -- with whom she had not discussed the issue -- complained that she seemed to be trying to distance herself from them to curry favor with suburban voters.
"She ended up looking like she was taking her decisions based on what was politically expedient," said Edwards. In the view of some, her actions smacked of the stereotypically calculating, cynical politician. "You could just see her, with her hands in the air, weighing: `Upstate voters? Puerto Ricans? Upstate voters? Puerto Ricans,' " said Angelo Falcon, an official with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Clinton tried in private telephone calls on Monday to assuage the concerns of Puerto Rican elected officials angered by her position.
"I believe there will be times when I disagree with my friends and my husband and his administration," she told reporters Thursday. "I hope by the time this election comes around in 14 or so months, assuming that I'm on the ballot, that I will have the support of as many New Yorkers as I can possibly reach."