FIRST Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has created a frenzy of political speculation in Washington over the big question: will she run for the United States Senate from New York? And if she does, will the White House trappings of a sitting First Lady, which include Air Force jets and Secret Service limousines, give her an unfair advantage over the other candidates? This is uncharted territory, as is just about everything about the prospect of a sitting First Lady running for elected office.
Her recent statement that she would give 'careful thought' to making a bid for the seat to be vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 2000 has been received with enthusiasm by many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton. During a recent visit to Mexico, he expressed the view that she would make a 'terrific senator.' US Rep. Charles Rangal, a veteran Manhattan Democrat predicted that should Hillary run in 2000 'she'd win'. Having emerged from the Monica Lewinsky scandal a clear winner in terms of public popularity, despite the distinctly uncomfortable position she occupied (or perhaps because of it), running for Senate is clearly a real possibility.
In New York, pollsters predict she would sweep a Democratic primary but could face a tough general election if New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani happened to be her Republican opponent. New Yorkers are mesmerised by the prospect of a battle between the charismatic, liberal, out-of-stater, and the pugnacious, conservative, homegrown Giuliani. 'It would be a monster rumble', says former Republican national chairman Rich Bond, who lives in New York.
In spite of his popularity, Giuliani has alienated many residents of New York city, from taxi drivers and street peddlers to many in the minority communities. Hillary is well known, respected and popular in the state. Her many visits were credited with helping Democrat senator Charles Schumer defeat gop Senator Alfonse last November.
If Hillary does decide to run for Senate, she will not be given an easy ride. Belligerent questions, jockeying interest groups, raucous televised debates, tabloid tell-alls and negative ads often mark campaigns. Former New York mayor Ed Koch predicts that there would be potentially damaging gop efforts to portray her as 'a left-wing radical, a vicious ideologue'. The ill-fated health care plan she championed in the early '90s could be a sticky issue. And her support for Palestinian statehood would be controversial in the state's sizable Jewish community. If she runs, she should expect questions on everything from her lucrative commodity trades to her 'It Takes a Village' child-rearing theories. 'When you run for Senate, everything is a fair question and anyone who runs for Senate has to realise that,' Schumer told an Albany news conference. 'I'd rather walk on hot coals than face the New York media,' says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. 'She'll feel like she is walking on hot coals...when she faces tabloid journalism in New York.'
The most compelling argument against her running is that the Senate seat would be tantamount to a step down from her current role. 'I really don't think it's the best thing for her,' says former New York governor Mario Cuomo, a Democrat. 'She's much better off just being the big person in the country without having to worry about what (Senate Democratic leader Tom) Daschle says, and without being junior to anybody.'
Will she really run? Probably not, according to a White House source. The contrast in influence between first lady and junior senator from New York is striking-and no one knows that better than she.Also, as a candidate and an elected official, Hillary Clinton would be subjected to renewed scrutiny of her role in Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate and a cattle-futures deal that magically turned a $1,000 investment into $100,000.
If Hillary decides not to run she has many options. She would be sought after as a corporate board member, a celebrity speaker, or to lend her name to any number of causes and institutions. There is also the possibility of a high-profile post at an international organisation such as the UN, which would allow her to pursue her humanitarian interest around the world. Financial considerations, however, will be important. The Clintons have accumulated about $8 million in legal fees defending themselves in various scandals and inquiries, beginning in 1994 with Whitewater. Part of the debt is being covered by funds raised from supporters' donations through a legal expense trust fund, but much will remain.