New York Times Editorial
May 17, 2000


Mrs. Clinton's Moment


In her first outing as a candidate for elective office, Hillary Rodham Clinton has demonstrated a firm grasp of a basic rule of politics. That is the one about never interfering when your opponent is being engulfed with bad news. Indeed, Mrs. Clinton has campaigned with such quiet decorum during Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's travails that the public may be tempted to overlook the accomplishment represented by her formal nomination yesterday.

In the six months since she entered the Senate race, Mrs. Clinton has molded herself into a formidable candidate, matching Mr. Giuliani in the polls even before a combination of health and marital problems put his candidacy in doubt. To do that, she survived a blizzard of rookie mistakes and learned, by her own admission, that being a candidate is much harder than coaching a spouse on how to run. She seems more willing to campaign outside the moving cocoon provided by her White House connection. She has managed to contain, if not totally defuse, the carpetbagger issue. While she will never be a spellbinding orator, she sticks with discipline to a message designed to rally core Democrats.

Even though Mrs. Clinton began with the advantages of fame, connections and money, her candidacy also carried a risk of self-destruction through bad performance. Neither President Clinton nor her advisers could shield her from that. To have emerged as at least an even bet for victory this fall is an accomplishment that no one should begrudge her.

It may seem odd, then, that her moment of adulation by 11,000 Democrats at the state convention should be overshadowed by suspense over Mr. Giuliani's future. But this is a novelistic campaign, even by New York standards. The story turns for the moment on a question that may lie beyond political calculation, and that is whether Mr. Giuliani's prostate cancer is susceptible to a treatment that will leave him the time and energy to run. Depending on how that is settled, other issues may come into play. For example, by admitting to a relationship outside his marriage, Mr. Giuliani may have pushed American or, at least, New York politics toward a new rule book on the political impact of private behavior. Or he may have moved some members of blocs he will need in a tight election -- suburban Republican wives, for example -- toward his opponent. Another theory is that a hubristic and perhaps self-destructive mayor will seem humanized by illness and romantic conflict. He might then, according to this reasoning, actually run better against a first lady who, for all her success inside the Democratic Party, is still a divisive figure for many voters.

And what if the Republicans have to turn elsewhere for a candidate? There is no shortage of eager congressmen, led by Rick Lazio and Peter King. Gov. George Pataki would clearly be the G.O.P.'s strongest runner, but that would mean risking his national aspirations on a late-starting effort. Republican leaders have gone forward cautiously with such speculations, properly reluctant to be seen as pressuring Mr. Giuliani about a difficult and upsetting medical dilemma. Similarly, the Democrats at Albany last night were put on notice by party leaders to avoid gloating or overconfidence.

But it is beyond human nature to suspend curiosity and even amazement about one of the most riveting Senate races in decades. No one could have foreseen both the political impact of fate and his personal choices on Mayor Giuliani's campaign. Similarly, no one could have guaranteed that Mrs. Clinton would move with such relative ease from untested newcomer to nomination by acclamation, as she did last night.

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