The Boston Phoenix
November 25 - December 2, 1999


Early frost

Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign has lost much of its summer sizzle

by Seth Gitell

Heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis joined Rudy Giuliani last Thursday at a New York City Hall press conference announcing a new series of Senate campaign ads. Giuliani held Lewis's World Boxing Council heavyweight-championship belt over his head, and someone joked about Lewis fighting the mayor. Giuliani laughed it off. He's got another opponent to think about -- Hillary Rodham Clinton. And at this stage of her quasi-campaign for the United States Senate, the first lady is on the ropes.

It didn't start out this way. Last July, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan escorted Clinton to meet the media at his farm in upstate New York. Back then, packs of reporters hung on her every word and slavishly followed her "listening tour" across the state. Polls showed she had a 19-point lead over Giuliani. But now Democrats talk openly about the possibility of her deciding not to run after all. And while Clinton is stumbling into international incidents in the Middle East, Giuliani is firmly rooted in New York City, running his campaign as relentlessly as he went after Mafiosi back in the 1980s, when he was a federal prosecutor.

Much like the heavyweight match-up between William Weld and John Kerry in 1996, the Giuliani-Clinton race is attracting national attention. Unlike that race, however, the New York contest offers something never seen before -- a first lady (who's sometimes been seen as co-president) running for a prominent office in her own right. So far, the experiment is going badly for her. The latest polls show that Clinton has lost her summer lead and is actually five points behind Giuliani. Worse, Giuliani is besting Clinton by a two-to-one margin in the suburbs, and she's even faltering with "soccer moms."

And she's made some major PR blunders. Take her recent flop in the West Bank. Clinton embraced Suha Arafat, the wife of Yasser Arafat, right after a speech during which Suha Arafat accused Israel of poisoning the Palestinian water supply. Before the event was even over, reporters in Ramallah were using their cell phones to call Giuliani's office for comment. Giuliani took to the airwaves of New York's 24-hour cable news channel and denounced Clinton's failure to condemn what Suha Arafat had said. It took 12 hours before the first lady's team could respond to the comments or explain why it had taken so long to respond in the first place. That illustrates a major difference between Clinton's campaign and Giuliani's. "Mayor Giuliani is here every day. He answers every question," says WCBS-TV reporter Marcia Kramer, who traveled with the first lady on the trip. (She also happens to be the reporter who got then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton to admit that he had smoked but never inhaled.) "During her whole trip in Israel, she had one press conference."

The New York Post pounced on the Suha Arafat story and ran miles of copy on the affair over successive days. And a group known as the Republican Jewish Coalition is already running television ads showing the controversial embrace. The incident, coming as it did just days after a flap involving soft-money political advertisements being aired upstate, resonated not just with middle-of-the road Jewish voters but with the general public, reinforcing the idea that Clinton cannot be counted on in the crunch.

In New York -- even more than elsewhere -- unanswered political attacks can be deadly. A failure to respond quickly enough to reports that he had called Charles Schumer a "putzhead" is thought to have cost Alfonse D'Amato re-election to his Senate seat. But what's hurting Clinton even more than her "missteps" is the fact that she is both a Senate candidate and the first lady. Ultimately, that's what most observers blamed for her failure to respond to the Arafat ambush. After all, it would be unseemly and perhaps harmful to the Middle East peace talks for the wife of the United States president to insult the wife of the leader of one of the negotiating parties. As Judith Hope, the chairwoman of the New York State Democratic Party, told the Associated Press, Clinton has to "give up her day job."

Clinton is losing the very voters she should have locked up by now, says William Rapfogel over a Nova-lox platter in Ratner's restaurant on Delancey Street, in New York. As the executive director of the Metropolitan Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty and the neighbor and friend of Democrat Sheldon Silver (who, as Speaker of the Assembly, is the Tom Finneran of New York), Rapfogel is a knowledgeable observer of the New York political scene. If anyone knows the demographic Clinton needs to win, it's Rapfogel.

"I've seen a lot of people who have a lot of respect for Giuliani and what he's achieved," he says. "These people are saying, `What has he done for me lately? Where is the more humane city he promised?' They were ready for someone else. Now they're saying they can't stand her." Clinton is missing a crucial campaign opportunity, he explains.

"If she was a pitcher in baseball, I'd be looking to the bullpen," says Rapfogel, himself a former hot baseball prospect. "She gets in trouble every inning."

The thing that is repelling voters is the perception that Clinton is willing to say anything to get elected. Her announcement that she had changed her position on recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital; her support for the imprisoned Puerto Rican FALN members, and then her reversal -- all this speaks to voters of phoniness. Even when it was reported that Clinton's step-grandfather, Max Rosenberg, was Jewish, it was seen as blatant pandering to New York's Jewish voters on the part of the Clinton campaign. (Disclosure: I broke that story, and it didn't come from the first lady's campaign.)

If Clinton were to sit down and speak with Rapfogel -- as she has done with other New York figures, including Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer and city comptroller Alan Hevesi -- he would tell her to move away from symbolism and get in touch with substance. Rather than make statements about controversial topics, Clinton should actually make a difference on issues such as the Buffalo economy and housing for the elderly. "She's got to go and lobby Andrew Cuomo at HUD even before she's a senator," Rapfogel says. "She's got to start to deliver while her husband is still the president."

To be sure, taking Rapfogel's suggestion could open Clinton up to even more criticism that she was using her husband's office for political gain. But at least Rapfogel's strategy would require her to be active. She'd have to spend time and energy doing things on behalf of the state -- not just flip-flopping on the issues like a newly caught bass.

Supporters of Clinton are hoping to give her campaign a huge boost this week. But it won't happen in New York -- it'll happen here in Boston, with a $250,000 fundraiser at the Park Plaza on December 1. Elaine Schuster, the event's co-chair, says it is sure to raise even more money. Following the fundraiser, Clinton is going to do what all the voices out there say she ought to do -- move in to her new home in Chappaqua, New York.

"She's going to spend a lot of time in New York. She's getting started in doing her house over very shortly," says Schuster. "She will start to focus on certain issues that the people in New York care about."

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Clinton would look to the Bay State for a boost. Massachusetts has been a major source of Democratic dollars for the president, vice-president, and first lady. Says Schuster: "Massachusetts [Democrats] are very savvy people, and they want that seat. She is immensely popular here. And she's a big plus for other women who are running all over the country." Schuster expects between 500 and 600 people to attend the Boston event.

The former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Steve Grossman, echoes Schuster's enthusiasm. "People are very enthusiastic about Hillary Rodham Clinton right now," he says. When Clinton focuses on the race and begins speaking on issues such as education and health care, the Giuliani campaign will be the one in trouble, he predicts. "Hillary at her best is as good as the president at his best," Grossman says.

Even the Boston fundraiser is not entirely without controversy, however. A flap has arisen over one of the event's organizers, attorney Robert Crowe. Crowe's firm, it seems, has done work on behalf of Swiss banks accused of stealing Jewish assets during the Holocaust.

Despite the recent talk that Clinton may abandon her Senate hopes, the scene at the office of her exploratory committee, just across from Penn Station, is one of perpetual activity. Clinton's campaign strategists believe that they can win new ground in upstate New York, where the populace is generally suspicious of New York City and its brash mayors. A bulletin board with newspaper photos of her upstate listening tour is the only adornment in a barren anteroom. The spokesman for the exploratory committee, Howard Wolfson, carries an air of weariness as he comes to the entrance and motions toward the noise within. "I've got to get back," he says. "We've got Giuliani's new ads to look at."

Giuliani has won the opening rounds of his contest with the first lady. But there is still a year to go, and Clinton -- fueled by a nationwide fundraising apparatus -- is moving in to her Westchester home and planning to be in the state full-time. Which means that the battle will intensify before the match is over. Just ask Lennox Lewis. In heavyweight fights, the winner, more often than not, is the last one standing.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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