New York Times Company
February 6, 2000


Mrs. Clinton Vows Fight on Issues and Image


ADAM NAGOURNEY

NEW YORK --Moving to repair a candidacy that she acknowledges has stirred concern about her political skills and spirit, Hillary Rodham Clinton says she is now prepared to press an aggressive campaign against Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in the race for United States Senate, drawing distinctions on issues ranging from school vouchers to tax cuts, and arguing that Senate Republicans "don't need any more votes" in Washington.

In her first extended interview devoted to her Senate candidacy, just days before her official announcement Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Clinton took pains to present herself as a moderate Democrat. She went out of her way to note her support for the death penalty, welfare restrictions and a balanced budget.

The first lady, who unsuccessfully championed national health care six years ago, asserted that "there are not government solutions" to most problems facing the nation.

And, sounding very much like a new Westchester homeowner suffering from a case of property-tax sticker shock, Mrs. Clinton said she was stunned to discover the tax burden faced by state residents.

She said she would use her formal announcement speech -- in the gymnasium at the State University of New York at Purchase -- to try to offer voters an education about her personal background and professional accomplishments. Her travels through New York since last summer had convinced her, she said, that she had become something of a caricature. She said that was partly because her own accomplishments had been eclipsed by her husband's career, and by her mostly self-imposed isolation in the White House.

But, reprising what has been a recurrent theme in her public life, Mrs. Clinton also blamed conservative attacks -- "the drum beat of an ideology that is really being promoted at my expense," as she put it -- for distorting the public's view of her.

She made her remarks in an 80-minute interview with The New York Times, conducted Thursday evening in her eighth-floor corner office overlooking Madison Square Garden, accompanied by her press secretary, Howard Wolfson. The interview came after what has proven to be a difficult six-month introduction into electoral life and New York politics for Mrs. Clinton, who has been criticized for running a clumsy, passive, unfocused, and vague campaign.

She did not quarrel with criticism of her campaign style. But in outlining her plans as she moved into the next phase of the race, she offered signs of a significant shift in her strategy. She said she would be more aggressive in presenting her case while trying to offer a fuller, and presumably more sympathetic, portrait of her life and career.

As she spoke, aides trucked in cartons filled with 400,000 eight-page leaflets, titled "Hillary: The Real Story," that were to be distributed across the state starting today.

"This has probably been the biggest surprise to me in the last six months," Mrs. Clinton said.

"What I have found is that people don't know anything, really, about the work that I did before Bill was elected president. And know very little -- except about health care -- about the work that I've done in the White House.

It became so apparent to me that in order to introduce myself to the voters of New York, I was going to have to go back and really share a lot of my lifestyle."

Throughout the interview, she was relaxed and jaunty, laughing even when asked whether she was concerned that her campaign might be jeopardized by the impending report by an independent counsel, Robert W. Ray, who is still investigating the failed Whitewater land deal and her role in other matters, like the firings of several employees in the White House travel office.

"I would have hoped that this would have been concluded by now, but apparently that is not the game plan," she said. "And I guess New Yorkers will have to judge that for what they think of it."

She declined to speculate on what Mr. Ray might find, or the subject of the investigation, saying: "It is hard to believe that after six and a half years, tens of thousands of documents, grand juries, testimonies, committee hearings and everything that's gone on, that this could not be brought to a conclusion."

Mr. Ray's report is due to be issued in the middle of her campaign, and since Mrs. Clinton is promising now be available more often in news conferences and one-on-one interviews, it seems likely that she will be forced to address these issues frequently in the months ahead.

For the first time, she also talked about her new life outside the White House, though she still is not living full time in her $1.7 million house in Chappaqua. She described her first few weeks as something of an adventure, noting that she had barely driven a car, cooked a meal or gone shopping for years.

"You know, pushing that cart through the supermarket, and standing and talking to -- I had a long conversation about clementines with the produce manager because it's been a long time since I bought a crate of clementines," she said of a recent visit to a Grand Union near her home on Old House Lane. "You know, standing over in the dairy department trying to decide what Skim Plus meant.

Because, you know, I'd never seen Skim Plus.

And having a man come up to me and kind of do a double take and kind of say, 'Is that you?' and I said, 'I guess so, it is me.' It made me feel like I was re-entering the real world."

After months of generally avoiding direct engagement with Mr. Giuliani and not offering many specific proposals of her own, she asserted that there were clear differences between them, even though they do agree on a number of issues that typically divide Democrats and Republicans, including support for abortion rights and gay rights.

For example, although she went out of her way to complain about the tax burden faced by Westchester homeowners -- a complaint that has historically reaped dividends for politicians running for office in Westchester -- she criticized Mr. Giuliani for supporting the large tax cut pushed by Republicans in Washington. Democrats have instead endorsed small, targeted tax reductions in order to use some of the surplus for Medicare and Social Security.

She emphasized that education would be the main issue in the campaign, a reflection of a series of polls suggesting that the topic is the top concern of state voters and a vulnerable subject for her opponent. Mrs. Clinton criticized Mr. Giuliani for supporting school vouchers, which she argued would drain money from public schools.

The first lady said she supported some forms of competency tests for teachers and school standards for children. Asked whether she supported merit pay, Mrs. Clinton said she favored "pay for performance," adding that she would elaborate on the subject in a speech devoted to education in Syracuse on Tuesday as part of her statewide tour this week.

She has the backing of the teachers' union and a sizable bloc of labor support, which Mr. Giuliani's aides have suggested could undermine any of her efforts to effect real school reform.

She indicated that she would take the advice of some Democrats and, in effect, nationalize her contest against Mr. Giuliani by characterizing a vote for the mayor as a vote for a Republican majority in the Senate. She went so far as to suggest that she believed the Democrats could capture the Senate next year, a view that is not shared by most political professionals.

"I don't think the Republicans need any more votes to block campaign finance reform, or turn back the clock on our budget and deficit policies, or to side with the majority of Republican leadership on issues ranging from school vouchers to whether or not we deal with health care in a step-by-step way to try to eventually reach a goal of providing quality affordable health care for everybody," she said.

Although Mrs. Clinton seemed eager to try to hold Mr. Giuliani accountable for the actions of the Republicans in Washington, she seemed reluctant to grant him too much credit for changes that have taken place in New York under his watch. She said much of the credit for the drop in crime in the city should go to federal funding for new police officers, and to the policies of the former police commissioner, William Bratton, who was appointed but then ousted by Mr. Giuliani.

"You're not going to find me trying to claim that nothing good has happened in New York," she said. "I love New York City. I mean, if I weren't excited about living in New York City and excited about the quality of life here, I wouldn't be here."

Still, Mrs. Clinton has told friends in recent weeks that she has been startled by what she sees as the ferocity of some of the coverage of her, and by the speed with which some of her earliest supporters have retreated as her campaign seemed to stumble. She made no such observations in the interview, though, and instead praised the state's Democratic leaders and presented herself as a candidate who had fallen more than once while climbing an unusually sharp learning curve.

"Being a candidate, and being a candidate in the toughest political environment in America, which I don't think there's any doubt about, is a real challenge," she said, playing with a pair of reading glasses and sipping a cappuccino as she settled into a couch in the office she shares with her campaign manager, Bill de Blasio.

Her plan amounts to reintroducing herself to voters. Her aides regard it as perhaps the the most important task facing her in today's speech and the weeks ahead, and it is reminiscent of what her husband did in the spring of 1992.

He and his chief political advisers, including Mrs. Clinton and Mandy Grunwald, who is working for Mrs. Clinton in this campaign, wanted to blunt negative portrayals of him as a draft-dodger and womanizer.

In remaking his image, they recruited Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the Hollywood television producer, to create a biographical film introducing Mr. Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.

Ms. Bloodworth-Thomason has prepared a similar film to introduce Mrs. Clinton this afternoon.

She and her advisers hope the film will help to rehabilitate her own image and try to establish that she has accomplishments, as a lawyer and an advocate for children, that are not dependent on her husband's record.

A lot of that has been obscured, she said, by attacks on her and the president. Asked if she still believed that they were a target of a "right-wing conspiracy," as she first said during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she said: "If you look at the mailings that all of these groups are sending out -- I don't know if they're part of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

But they are certainly part of a broad network of people who are all aiming their ammunition against me because I don't believe what they believe."

She also said many voters, particularly women, have an unfavorable view of her merely because they have superficial information about her.

"In the small groups I've been meeting with -- primarily of women -- a lot of women become very skeptical, because they have an idea in their mind of what I am going to be like," she said. "They think I must kind of be carried around in some kind of a chariot, with liveried servants, or something. So when they meet me, and we start talking about what life is like, and what my experiences have been like, we have an immediate bond."

She did not dispute the lament of her supporters that she has run a timid and unadventurous campaign. She said she had made a calculated decision to hold back until she learned the terrain of a state where she had never lived.

"It's a natural conclusion for some people to draw because I deliberately set out to listen," she said. "Look. I've had to learn how to be a candidate. This is not something that, you know, I woke up in July and went to Senator Moynihan's farm and said, 'Here I am, world, I'm a great candidate!' I've had to learn a lot."

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