Hillary Rodham Clinton's missteps during a Middle East trip this week have provoked a new round of questions from top New York Democrats over whether she has the political skills to mount an effective Senate campaign, with some questioning whether she should be in the race at all.
Both Judith Hope, the state Democratic chairwoman, and H. Carl McCall, the state comptroller and highest vote-getting Democrat, have spoken out on the issue this week, acknowledging that the tension between Clinton's competing roles as first lady and Senate candidate is not healthy for her candidacy.
Pointing to her relatively poor standing in the polls and the absence of momentum in her campaign, former White House aide George Stephanopoulos, now an ABC News commentator, described on a Sunday talk show what he called "a lot more whispering right now about can she get out of the race." He added: "There's a lot more people in the Democratic Party now who wish she would."
While other analysts downplay or dispute such dynamics and say it is still very early--she has not even officially announced--it is clear that Clinton's campaign is laboring beneath the weight of the first-lady-inspired celebrity that once seemed sure to buoy it. And all the while, her likely Republican opponent, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has been able to collect her missteps as campaign fodder.
The latest stumble on Clinton's road to the Senate began even before her Middle East visit. The trip was scheduled months in advance by the White House, but Clinton's campaign staff--fearing unforeseen events--did not want her to go, a source said. She already had been to the Middle East on four different occasions.
But she went, traveling to Israel and the West Bank in her role as first lady. On Thursday, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Clinton sat silently while Suha Arafat, wife of the Palestinian leader, lambasted Israel for what she said was the use of "poisonous gas" on Palestinians and the subsequent increased cancer rates among women and children. It took until the next day for Clinton to respond, calling the remarks "inflammatory."
Here in New York, some Jews were outraged both by Arafat's statements and by Clinton's tepid response. And some wondered why, considering the potential to ignite controversy among the Jewish electorate, which is 12 percent of the vote, she made the trip.
"She was in situation that is always fraught with difficulty," McCall said in an interview Monday night on the NY-1 cable channel. "The thing is, if you're going to be a candidate, then you don't put yourself in those kinds of situations. You focus on doing the things that you have to do as a candidate."
Hope was quoted Monday by the Associated Press joking that Clinton needs to "give up her day job" and put a cot in the new Clinton house in Chappaqua to be a full-time candidate. Hope said today that those remarks were taken out of context, saying in a telephone interview that she believes Clinton has been a "very strong candidate."
Still, she acknowledged that the roles of first lady and Senate candidate are not necessarily compatible and that Clinton, with the Democrats in tow, is in uncharted political territory. Clinton, for instance, was initially silent on her husband's offer of clemency to Puerto Rican terrorists in late summer. But when Republicans criticized the offer as a vote-getting ploy for his wife, she came out against the clemency, angering Democratic allies among New York Puerto Ricans.
"There are no primers on how to do this," Hope said of the unique mix of first lady as candidate. "We always understood that it will bring special challenges, and sure enough it does. But I'm certain she is equal to them."
That prominent Democrats would speak publicly about their candidate's vulnerabilities struck political analyst Mitchell Moss as itself indicative of party worries.
"What's occurred now is that the Democrats who were so eager to have Mrs. Clinton run are now clearly worried about her ability to win," said Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University. "There's an underlying current which is now becoming more vocal, which is that perhaps the audition has revealed all kinds of problems in this candidacy."
CAPTION: First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is introduced by Suha Arafat, wife of Palestinian leader, who then made her remarks.