Give this much to Ileana Trento: At a time when many voters have tuned out politics, she is tuned in with a vengeance--consumed with curiosity about first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's run for the Senate in New York.
Too bad for Clinton that Trento's questions have nothing to do with such subjects as the first lady's record on children's issues or her vision for New York. Instead, the 28-year-old Long Islander's inquiring mind wants to know:
Was there a hidden motive behind Clinton's move out of the White House into a home in Westchester County? Will she stay in New York if she loses the election? Most of all: What's the real story about her marriage to President Clinton?
Trento takes it as a given that things are not what they seem. "It's so fake, the way they interact," she said. "It's like 'One, two, three, hold hands.' "
This is the soap opera campaign. Many New Yorkers, interviews here make clear, are not viewing Hillary Clinton's campaign as an unprecedented venture by a sitting first lady, which it is, nor as a progressive crusade, which is what many of her ardent supporters are hoping it will become. Instead, they are watching it as the next--and, many believe, the climactic--episode in a Clinton family psychodrama.
This persistent refusal to take the first lady's candidacy at face value has become a serious obstacle for the campaign, according to polls and a variety of political observers. The premise among her strategists when Clinton started her unofficial campaign last year was that in due course her candidacy would seem less exotic, and voters would focus on issues rather than personality. That may yet happen. For now, however, New Yorkers' brutally personal judgments about her marriage, and their gossipy speculation about her motives for running, have become a political head wind.
Confronting this problem has become a strategic issue for Hillary Clinton's campaign and President Clinton, who has pledged to help her candidacy however he can, according to Democratic sources close to both Clintons. There were intense discussions within her team about the public staging of her move this month into a $1.7 million house in Westchester County: What should his role be? Hillary Clinton is determined in New York to craft a political persona distinct from his. On the other hand, these advisers concluded it was essential that her move not be viewed by voters as a de facto separation.
So there was the president helping unload boxes on moving day on Jan. 4. Again last week, he made late adjustments to his schedule to spend two nights at the Chappaqua house. The next day, President Clinton reversed what one adviser to the first lady called an unfortunate "mixed signal" by making clear that he would register to vote in New York, not Arkansas, in order to support his wife.
Just this week, Hillary Clinton was pressed to answer searingly personal questions about her marriage. An interviewer on Buffalo's WKBW-TV asked her to address speculation that she will divorce her husband after the presidency. Invoking their "many shared experiences and a lot of love in our family," she answered, "I certainly intend to spend the rest of my life with him."
The next day brought what Hillary Clinton called an "out-of-bounds" exchange when Buffalo radio host Tom Bauerle of WGR-AM asked her whether rumors that she had an affair with the late White House lawyer Vincent Foster were true. "Of course it's no," she said, according to news accounts.
The first lady made plain her resentment at the inquiry. "You're going to hate me," said Bauerle, as he prefaced his question. "Well, you know, Tom, I do hate you for that," she responded, adding, "At some point we all have to say these questions, these speculations really divert attention [from] what we can do to work together."
For all their impertinence, however, the radio host's prurient questions apparently reflect the interests of many New York voters. Or at least those spending time here on an evening last week at the giant Roosevelt Field Mall, in a Long Island suburb that leans Republican but is filled with many of the swing voters the first lady's campaign is expecting to win. In two dozen interviews, three quarters of the people responded to an open-ended question about what they thought of Clinton's campaign with a comment about her marriage or a skeptical opinion about her reasons for running.
Many, like Trento, drew a link between the race for Senate and Hillary Clinton's ordeal during the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. "I think she feels she wants to do something on her own," she said while dining at the food court. "She has to change the perception of herself as a victim. . . . I think it's part of her personality that she wants to be in control."
Her friend, 45-year-old Deborah Brand, who voted twice for President Clinton, says that unless New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the likely Republican candidate, "does something really bad" there is virtually no chance Hillary Clinton can win her support. She said she can't help but speculate about the true state of the Clinton marriage.
"You have to make a scenario of what their lives are like beneath the image," she said.
Perhaps the image Hillary Clinton is projecting as someone genuinely interested in New York is the truth? Brand won't buy it. "I think if she doesn't win they'll probably sell the house and move away," she said.
In the wake of the scandal, some voters say Hillary Clinton lacks traits she had once been credited for having in abundance. "She doesn't represent strong, independent women to me," said Belinda Humphreys, 30. "To me, it seems as if they're misjudging the intelligence of the voter--they'll throw their daughter in the picture and say we're a big happy family together."
A few tables away, Sharon Sisskind, who supports abortion rights and tougher environmental laws and almost always votes Democratic, was similarly derisive. "I think it's a power trip," she said. "I think she's trying to show him up."
Sisskind, who works for a flower ordering service, said she was sympathetic to Hillary Clinton at the beginning of the Lewinsky ordeal, but not when she concluded that the first lady was trying to translate sympathy into political support. Like numerous women interviewed here, she said she would be more supportive if Hillary Clinton was turning her attention to divorce court, rather than the Senate. "If I were her, I'd be done with him as soon as he was out of office," she said. "She should stand up for herself and not put up with this crap."
It fell to her husband to speak for the defense. "Her husband's fooling around does not make her unqualified," said Jules Sisskind, an accountant. "Women should have the right to do what they want."
"It doesn't mean I would not vote for her, but I would take that into account," responded Sharon Sisskind.
This exchange showed how, even as impeachment and the Lewinksy scandal are receding from consciousness in most of the country, in New York the first lady's campaign is keeping those episodes alive.
Bonnie Plantyn, a 41-year-old mother, said her reaction to Hillary Clinton in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal has been: "What is wrong with this woman? Where are her brains?" But her friend, 34-year-old mother Donna Hope, said her admiration for the first lady is undiminished. She said New Yorkers' focus on Hillary Clinton's personal life is a kind of hazing--"Let's see what stuff you're made of"--that will recede as the campaign moves forward.
That, in fact, is the judgment Clinton's campaign strategists and informal advisers are making. Most public polls have her running behind Giuliani by a few points to as many as nine. But her pollster, Mark Penn, calls these numbers "a base line" that will rise as voters stop viewing the race "as an unfolding story" and start listening to her positions on child care, education and who has the more relevant experience and temperament to serve in the Senate. "This is the entertainment phase of the campaign," said political consultant James Carville, a Clinton loyalist.
"There's no magic answer to this," said one adviser, who believes voters will have to be convinced gradually that "she's really committed to this" and not running "just to redeem herself."
John Zogby, a New York pollster, agreed that the personal issues may recede somewhat as the campaign takes shape. But he said the prism through which voters are viewing Hillary Clinton is a liability she must overcome. When he asked voters last spring what they most wanted to know about Giuliani, they said his positions on education and helping upstate New York. For her, they wanted to ask about the carpetbagger charge and why she stayed in her marriage.
Some voters sound a tad sheepish that personalities matter so much. Jeff Lieberman, a self-described "aging hippie," said he plans to vote for Clinton, even though her public image reminds him of a "schoolteacher who's not happy with what she's doing." Almost in spite of himself, he said, he joins colleagues in chortling at the daily e-mail jokes about the first lady that circulate at his office.
It's a problem for a candidate, Lieberman notes, when people are laughing rather than listening. "How many times have you heard a joke about Senator [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan," the retiring Democratic incumbent, he said. "I have no doubt she'd be a competent senator, [but] this is America and you judge candidates by how they come across."