Jeanine Pirro, a street-smart and media-savvy Republican prosecutor, launched her campaign for the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, insisting that incumbent Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to use the state as a "doormat to the White House."
"New York deserves a senator who has New York's interests at heart," Pirro told a standing-room-only gaggle of local and national media people at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan. "Not the divided loyalties of one seeking to satisfy the needs of people in Iowa, New Hampshire or Florida.
"You can't run for two offices at once," she added.
Pirro's entry into the race promises a fierce battle in 2006. She is a well-regarded three-term district attorney in suburban Westchester County, with a telegenic smile and rapier wit. And polls suggest that although Clinton is a popular senator, a majority of New Yorkers prefer that the senator forgo a much-rumored White House run in 2008.
But Pirro, 54, comes with her own issues, not least her husband -- Albert Pirro -- who is a convicted felon, having served 11 months in prison for hiding $1 million in taxable income. He was accused of claiming dozens of luxury items, from his Ferrari and her Mercedes-Benz to the salaries of employees who care for their pet pigs, as business expenses.
Albert Pirro lost his law license but remains an influential lobbyist. More recently, New York media reports said a capo in the Gambino crime family was taped by FBI agents saying that Pirro had leaked information to the mob about an investigation by the district attorney. Pirro has denied the allegations, calling them "triple hearsay." He did acknowledge some years ago -- after being confronted with DNA evidence -- that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.
Jeanine Pirro has suffered no backlash from voters, though, having been reelected easily since the allegations became public.
Her politics, in some respects, are not terribly different from Clinton's. She has cast herself as a Republican centrist, a supporter of abortion rights, a backer of immigration, and in favor of an assault-weapons ban and the current Social Security system. At the same time, she supports the USA Patriot Act and efforts to wipe out the estate tax. She opposes same-sex marriage, as does Clinton.
"I'm Republican red on fiscal policy with conservative beliefs on making tax cuts permanent, but I've got broad blue stripes on social issues that don't change based on the office I run for," Pirro said.
Pirro said this week for the first time that she is opposed to late-term abortions. Several years ago, she filled out a NARAL Pro-Choice America questionnaire in which she indicated opposition to a ban on such abortions out of fear that a woman's health might be harmed.
Pirro appeared rattled a bit by the intensity of the spotlight Wednesday. During her announcement speech, she paused mid-sentence and fell silent for 30 seconds as she searched for a missing page of her remarks. When asked about Iraq and the question of troop withdrawals -- a decided majority of New Yorkers oppose the U.S. involvement there -- she demurred.
"I certainly would leave that up to the experts who understand the military and what we need to do," she said. "The most important thing we can do is finish the job that we went over there to start."
Clinton supported the invasion of Iraq but has criticized the Bush administration's handling of the aftermath. New York Democrats said they are certain she will contrast her membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee with Pirro's reliance on "experts."
Pirro said her goal is to win, not simply to "bloody anybody up" in service of the national Republican Party. And quite a few observers, not least a few Democrats, suggested that Clinton would do well to take Pirro seriously. New York is a state leaning more and more Democratic in recent years, with Democrats holding both Senate seats and favored to capture the governor's post next year. But Pirro in the past has drawn votes from centrist suburban Democrats, and could run well in the more Republican precincts upstate.
At the very least, Pirro could force Clinton to expend time and money campaigning in New York instead of laying the groundwork for a possible 2008 presidential run.
"Pirro's advantage is that she's comfortable in front of cameras, she'll appeal to women voters and she'll do well in the suburbs," said Joseph Mercurio, a longtime Democratic political consultant. "She's got a real opportunity to give Hillary a real fight."