ABC News.Com
October 18, 2000

Hillary Enters Final Weeks in Lead

By Eileen Murphy

Despite being a cautious campaigner, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is acknowledging her status as front-runner in New York’s Senate race.

At a dinner last week, Mrs. Clinton publicly noted her lead in the polls, and with only 21 days to go in a contentious campaign against her Republican rival, Rep. Rick Lazio, it now seems increasingly possible that for the first time in history a first lady will gain elected office.

To borrow Mrs. Clinton’s favorite word when greeting New York audiences, the first lady seems downright “delighted” with her status as front-runner.

On the eve of her 25th wedding anniversary last week, Mrs. Clinton broke into a 10-second belly laugh when asked about the secret to a long marriage. “Stamina,” the first lady replied, using a word that could also apply to her grueling, 15-month campaign.

And Mrs. Clinton’s advisers, who have fluctuated between defensive and overwhelmed during the last 15 months, now radiate coolness just short of arrogance.

“We know this race is going to be close, but it’s nice to hit the big five-oh,” Mrs. Clinton’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, said after a Quinnipiac University poll on Sept. 27 gave Mrs. Clinton a 50 percent - 43 percent lead over Lazio.

Learning Experience

While Lazio insists the polls don’t reflect the grassroots support he encounters on the campaign trail, his four-month-old campaign seems hindered by the same drawback that hobbled the first lady early in her candidacy — mainly, conflicting advice offered to a naturally cautious candidate who doesn’t have the experience of running a statewide race.

“I think, barring some completely idiotic behavior on her part, she is now running a first-class campaign and is going to win,” said Tony Bullock, chief of staff for the man Mrs. Clinton and Lazio both hope to succeed, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Mrs. Clinton used the retiring Democratic senator’s home in upstate New York to launch her “listening tour” last summer.

Bullock says that by contrast, Lazio has managed to run a campaign that is the “political equivalent of Seinfeld … It’s really a campaign about nothing.”

Bullock also believes Mrs. Clinton’s first opponent, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, would have been a “whole lot more trouble.” Giuliani dropped out of the race in May, citing the need to treat his prostate cancer.

According to Bullock, the key to Mrs. Clinton’s success is that, unlike Lazio, “She has listened to good advice from people who know New York. The most important person in the room is the reporter from the Poughkeepsie Journal, not Tim Russert or Tucker Carlson.”

The Moynihan aide notes that Mrs. Clinton has done her homework, something that Bullock says “has paid off, big-time, in the words of [Republican vice-presidential candidate] Dick Cheney.”

As for Lazio, who counts out-of-staters Bill Dal Col and Mike Murphy among his key advisers, Bullock says, “he doesn’t look the part. In 10 years I’m sure he’ll be happy he looks 25 years old but right now he doesn’t look the like a senator … he booked the hall but didn’t have a show. “

Big Guns

In the final weeks of the campaign, Mrs. Clinton seems determined to stay on message. And in the wake of an agreement the two sides reached to ban so-called soft-money contributions from the campaign, the first lady is holding numerous fund-raisers to compete against an opponent with deeper pockets, holding fewer press conferences, and releasing an series of negative ads against Lazio.

And Mrs. Clinton has brought in the big guns of the Democratic Party to help her down the stretch. While New York Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Giuliani have appeared more frequently with Lazio this month, Mrs. Clinton is being propped up by the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, former Sen. George Mitchell, holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, investment legend Warren Buffett and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

In particular, Mrs. Clinton loves to mention Rubin and Buffett when she reminds voters of what she calls Lazio’s “risky” pledge to cut taxes.

Even bigger political names are on deck. The first lady’s husband, President Clinton, is planning to hold fund-raisers on her behalf in upstate Watertown and Binghamton on Oct. 22, and will stump for her in New York City.

Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, has appeared in public with Mrs. Clinton only a handful of times in the last several months. But he will campaign with her again on Thursday in New York though he holds a commanding lead in the state. Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who stumped with Mrs. Clinton in Brooklyn last month, may also appear with the first lady.

Finally, Moynihan himself will hit the trail with Mrs. Clinton upstate and in New York City after the Senate session ends.

Get-out-the-vote efforts are also on the rise. She has spent four of the last five Sundays visiting black churches in New York City to encourage turnout among her Democratic base.

It is at these events, and only these events, where Mrs. Clinton refers to the tribulations of her marriage to convey the message that she is committed to voters. She never fails to tell the congregation that she will “stick with you.” And last Sunday, at a church in the Bronx, Mrs. Clinton did not flinch when a minister praised her for being a “stand-by-her-man kind of woman.”

The Final Days

So what will the final three weeks of this historic race bring? There are a few political land mines that her campaign is hoping to avoid.

The front pages of New York City tabloids have been dominated by baseball, which may be a good thing for Mrs. Clinton.

But as a possible Major League Baseball “Subway Series” between the Yankees and the Mets looms, Mrs. Clinton nearly committed a political error last weekend by voicing her support for the Yankees.

The first lady, evidently forgetting that her claim to have been a lifelong Yankees fan despite growing up in Illinois brought her months of ridicule, volunteered last weekend that she would be rooting for the Yankees in a Subway Series, adding that when she was younger, “there weren’t any Mets.” (The franchise came into existence in 1962).

The first lady also offered to make a wager with Lazio on the outcome, which the Long Island congressman, a dedicated Mets fan, declined today, wondering why Mrs. Clinton would have an interest in the World Series.

“The Cubs aren’t in it, the White Sox aren’t in it, I don’t know why she’d go,” said Lazio today.

Further efforts by Mrs. Clinton to establish her devotion to the Yankees may only serve to remind New Yorkers of the “carpetbagger” issue that Lazio has brought up time and again.

Then again, in a city where imported baseball stars like Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza have been accepted by the fans, it may just be the case that New Yorkers don’t mind the prospect of an outsider representing them in the Senate, as long as she comes through in the clutch.

Middle East Remains Key Issue

But the biggest issue for Mrs. Clinton in her final days may well be one that has dogged her since the beginning of this race.

While it would be considered political suicide to do otherwise in New York, where typically 10 percent to 15 percent of the voters are Jewish, Mrs. Clinton has taken positions on the Middle East that are at odds with her husband’s administration.

She defended former Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount when the State Department called it a “provocation,” and said the United States should have vetoed a U.N. resolution condemning Israel for recent clashes with Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza.

Although Mrs. Clinton, who called for the creation of a Palestinian state in 1998, has made a yearlong effort to build trust among Jewish voters, it was apparent at a “Solidarity for Israel” rally in New York City last week that the latest violence could still hurt her campaign. At the rally she was repeatedly booed and questioned about her husband’s commitment to Israel in light of the U.S. abstention on the resolution.

And some Jews still have not forgiven Mrs. Clinton’s now-infamous visit to the West Bank last year when she kissed Suha Arafat, wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, after Mrs. Arafat said the Israelis had poisoned Palestinian women and children. Mrs. Clinton now says it was a mistake to have gone, but the issue is not dead.

First Lady or Candidate?

Mrs. Clinton has also recently emphasized that her comments on the Middle East are made in her role as candidate, not as the first lady, even though much of the world still thinks of her primarily in the latter role.

“Clearly in my mind over time I have moved much more positively to demonstrate what I would do as a senator,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters in Buffalo, “and where I have disagreed I’ve made those disagreements known.”

When asked if she and Lazio should leave the Middle East out of the Senate campaign, Mrs. Clinton said, “I don’t see how that would be possible.”

But Palestinians see the matter differently. Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi recently told ABCNEWS’ Ted Koppel that the peace process has become hurt by both “Israeli domestic concerns and American elections.”

And while Mrs. Clinton may speak of her “continuing relations with and friendships with Arab-Americans,” James Zogby, of the Arab-American Institute says Mrs. Clinton’s approach “angers him.”

“I’m someone she’s counted among her friends, along with people in the community who have given her money,” says Zogby, pointing out there is a community of more than 250,000 Arab-Americans in New York.

Zogby adds that he’s still waiting for a promised phone call from Mrs. Clinton. But in a race where both candidates have been taking a vocal pro-Israel stance, Zogby says it is unfair for both Mrs. Clinton and Lazio “to treat us like pariahs.

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