• U.S.

Hillary Clinton: A Race Of Her Own

17 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar

Charlie Rangel knew he had Bill Clinton cornered. Air Force One was streaking toward Mexico early last week when Rangel, the 14-term Harlem Congressman with the incomparably raspy voice, buttonholed the President on board and began advocating for his favorite cause: that Hillary Rodham Clinton should run for the Senate from New York in 2000. But the President didn’t need any persuading. “He was more excited than I’ve ever seen him about anything,” Rangel says. So Rangel moved on to the First Lady. For weeks he had been goading her about running. Now he told her, “We gotta hold back the President. He’s rippin’, rarin’ to go! He says we gotta have an agenda. We gotta let him know, because he’s ready to go!”

Hillary turned to Rangel. “Charlie,” she said, her mouth widening into a big, playful grin, “you’re baaaaad!”

But Rangel was telling the truth. At a photo op in Merida, Mexico, the next day, Clinton was asked about Hillary’s prospects. “It’s a decision she’ll have to make,” he said, before blurting out his feeling that “she’d be great if she did…I think she would be terrific in the Senate.”

So began a week in which talk about a Hillary run–which had been at a low buzz since January–rose to a clamorous din and then to a round-the-clock media roar. Just when the Republic thought it could safely turn its attention toward more pressing matters (How could the Yankees trade David Wells? What will ER do without George Clooney?), the Clintons snagged the headlines and talk shows for themselves–but with some good news for a change. Daniel Patrick Moynihan anointed the First Lady heir to his Senate seat, gushing over her “magnificent, young, bright, able, Illinois-Arkansas enthusiasm.” When Virginia Senator Chuck Robb appeared at a White House forum on Social Security, he noted that he was the only one there from the Senate. “Of course, that’s only the current U.S. Senate that I am referring to,” he said, to gales of knowing laughter–and, hey, was that Bill and Hillary winking at each other behind his back?

The speculation grew so fervid that the First Lady on Tuesday issued a statement announcing that–gasp!–she was thinking about it: “I will give careful thought to a potential candidacy in order to reach a decision later this year.” Released shortly before 6 p.m., perfectly timed to be read by the network news anchors, the statement revved the Washington-New York gossip machine. By Friday, when Hillary met for a private lunch with Moynihan, and Clinton again signaled his support during a press conference with French President Jacques Chirac, political hacks were salivating at the prospect of a celebrity death match between Clinton and New York City’s imperious mayor, Rudolph Giuliani–a notion that makes the state’s Democrats as giddy as 12-year-olds at an ‘N Sync show. According to a TIME/CNN poll of New York voters last week, if the election were held now, Hillary would whip Giuliani (52% to 43%), and she would be in a dead heat with New York Governor George Pataki (49% to 47%).

All this hypothesizing may prove foolishly premature. There is the chance that the Hillary boomlet is being stoked by the Administration as the perfect post-impeachment diversion: a party in honor of the scandal’s only victor, a celebration that doesn’t appear smug. Who better than Hillary to fill the media vacuum left by That Woman? And what better way to create a diversion from the ongoing Clintonian sleaze watch, including the newly published allegation of a Clinton sexual assault in 1978 and the possibility that Judge Susan Webber Wright will hold him in contempt for his testimony in the Paula Jones case? For the White House staff, Hillary for Senate is a much needed balm. “Whether it’s serious or not,” says Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart, “it’s fun.”

But is it real? Though Hillary has always had large political ambitions, close friends at first thought the Senate idea was essentially frivolous, something she would swat down before long. When Rangel began pushing her to run in November, after Moynihan announced his retirement, Hillary seemed more flattered than serious. But she didn’t discourage his overtures. Friends say she is ambivalent about doing the kind of high-profile good works–for the United Nations, for private foundations–that others often assume are in her future. And the more Rangel talked, the more she listened, tried the idea on for size and liked the way it fit.

In early January, New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli surmised on Meet the Press that Hillary would run. For Torricelli, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, there were political reasons for keeping Hillary’s name in play: the prospect of her as a candidate instantly made it harder for the G.O.P. to recruit its own candidates for New York’s open seat, which Democrats desperately need to keep.

The draft-Hillary effort soon took on a life of its own. When powerful New York Democrats pestered Rangel about the First Lady’s plans, he suggested they call her office themselves. Reporting back, they told Rangel, “You know what? She really is thinking about it.” Earlier this year, Hillary asked California Senator Barbara Boxer–whose daughter is married to Hillary’s brother–to approach Moynihan, with whom the Clintons have had cool relations, about a meeting to discuss a Senate race. Boxer went to Moynihan twice during the impeachment trial; he agreed to meet once it was over. Last Friday the First Lady received the Senator for lunch–“a chitchat, a little seance,” as an aide put it–at the White House. Moynihan came armed with county-by-county results from 30 years’ worth of past New York races.

Meanwhile Rangel has kept up his offensive. In January Hillary invited him to the White House after the State of the Union address. He brought New York Representative Nita Lowey, who has designs on the Democratic Senate nomination; she pledged to step aside if Hillary were to run. The next day Hillary and the President appeared before a throng of supporters in Buffalo, N.Y. In a neat reversal of their usual roles, Hillary kept Clinton waiting 15 minutes while she worked a rabid rope line. The next time Rangel and Hillary spoke, it was she who made the call. Last Tuesday, before she released her statement of noncommitment, she phoned Rangel again. “Thank you for all you’ve done,” Rangel says she told him. “I am very, very serious about this.”

Signs of a fledgling Hillary-for-Senate operation have started to emerge. Former White House aide Harold Ickes, a seasoned New York operative who managed the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign, has reappeared as Hillary’s chief political adviser. “I’m trying to provide her with information about the New York political situation,” Ickes told TIME. “I don’t see my function as urging her to run or urging her not to run.” Mandy Grunwald, Clinton’s media adviser in 1992 and veteran of three Moynihan campaigns, has also been invited into the inner circle. On the day of the Senate’s vote on impeachment last month, the President dropped in on the First Lady, having lunch with Ickes–a strategy session at which Hillary instructed Ickes to set up meetings with New York power brokers. The President later told an aide, “If anyone had seen us, they would have seen us laughing, but not about what they would think.” The aide took that to mean they were talking New York politics, not impeachment. Privately, Clinton has said he thinks his wife will go for it.

Now might be her moment. Her favorability rating is at 78% in New York City and at 65% statewide. Her bravura performance in the run-up to last November’s elections, when her stumping and fund raising helped seal Senate victories for Boxer and New York’s Charles Schumer, enhanced her star power. She has fully returned from the psychic sojourn that followed Clinton’s August admission of his affair with Lewinsky. She exerts a strong influence behind the scenes, and her fingerprints were all over dozens of items in the President’s budget, from a tax credit for stay-at-home moms to increased funds for research into childhood asthma.

Once the initial euphoria subsides, however, a draining, expensive Senate race that would start long before the Clintons have vacated the White House may look unappealing. The First Couple’s colossal legal debts are one hindrance. Hillary has always been the breadwinner, but if she were elected, Senate ethics rules would drastically diminish her earning power. “It weighs heavily on her mind,” says a close adviser. (To which Rangel responds, “What about Bill? Let him get a job.”) The demands of campaigning would make it impossible for her to cash in right away by writing a memoir. And with the trial of her former Little Rock law partner Webster Hubbell set to begin in June, Hillary hasn’t fully emerged from the shroud of investigation just yet.

As Al Gore might be tempted to mention to her, Hillary already has a campaign to pour her energies into. Gore needs Hillary’s fund-raising and crowd-pleasing skills to win the presidency. She reminds swing voters of the things they like about the Clinton presidency, and she connects on the emotive issues–children, families–that Gore has trouble with. Last week Gore told Time he has not discussed the prospect of her running with either the First Lady or the President–an astounding assertion, given that every other Democratic notable seems to have had such a chat. In an interview, he twice deflected the question of whether he would prefer her to campaign for him or herself in 2000. “She’ll be a positive force for Democrats,” he said tersely, “whether she runs for the Senate or not.”

Gore would no doubt be happy if Hillary decided to wait until 2004 to run in her home state of Illinois. Or there’s Arkansas (where she owns a half interest in her mother’s condo) in 2002, when back-bench Republican Tim Hutchinson comes up for re-election. Since Tim is the brother of Asa, one of the House impeachment managers, knocking him out would satisfy Hillary’s taste for political vengeance.

But Hillary knows about violent swings of public opinion. Riding high in the polls, she may sense that this is her best chance. Says Torricelli: “There is nothing less relevant than a former elected official.” (Except, perhaps, a former nonelected official.) “I don’t think Hillary wants to become part of the Rosalynn Carter or Nancy Reagan or Betty Ford routine,” he says. “She doesn’t want to talk about the good ole days.”

The Clintons have never been patient. Bill ran his first campaign at the age of 28. In 1991, when George Bush’s stratospheric approval ratings persuaded many Democrats to sit out the primaries, Bill and Hillary seized the opportunity. And now they may be doing it again. Ickes has set up a flurry of meetings and phone calls for next week with union leaders, local pols and minority leaders. The goal, says an adviser, is “to get a real feel for the politics of the place and the issues that matter there.” But Hillary plays for keeps. The aim of all this preliminary work is chiefly to find out whether she can win. And that means figuring out how to beat Rudy Giuliani.

Though Giuliani is as yet undeclared–and may even opt to run for Governor in 2002 if Hillary goes for the Senate–contemplating the matchup is irresistible. The contrast between their public personas is delicious–Giuliani, the pugnacious former prosecutor who cleaned up the New York City streets; Hillary, the dignified stateswoman so long scrutinized by another prosecutor–and yet they have similarly ruthless instincts. The duel puts political junkies in a wistful mood. “It would be a fabulous campaign,” says Fred Siegel, a political scientist at New York City’s Cooper Union. “They’re both tough, and they’re both mean.”

Democrats–who will have a hard time keeping the Moynihan seat against a well-financed, recognizable Republican like Giuliani if Hillary doesn’t run–are all too cocky about Hillary’s chances if she does. “She’d blow Giuliani out of the water,” says Tony Podesta, a Gore adviser, voicing an opinion echoed by many–and one that is rosy in the extreme. In all likelihood, the race would be very close, and the winner would be the one who proved the more surefooted on New York’s treacherous campaign trail.

As a contender, Hillary would start out with some tremendously favorable conditions. “She’s an icon in New York,” says Republican Gerald Benjamin, a dean at the State University of New York in New Paltz. “She transcends ordinary politics here. The analogy is Bobby Kennedy”–another out-of-stater who was elected to the Senate in 1964. New York has 1.9 million more registered Democrats than Republicans, and Hillary’s presence in the race would whip them into a frenzy. Among the Democrats’ core constituencies–Manhattan liberals, women, unions and minorities–Hillary would bury Giuliani. The mayor’s relations with blacks, especially, are precarious. The city’s crackdown on crime has led to an increase in complaints against police and a sense of siege among blacks. The police shooting last month of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, has ignited passions. Though the crisis will be over long before the election–replaced, no doubt, by some other New York nightmare–community leaders say they won’t forget. “This has unified blacks and Latinos,” says Ruben Diaz Jr., a state assemblyman from the Bronx, “and together, they will vote against Giuliani and in droves for Hillary Clinton.”

But make no mistake: against Giuliani, she would be in for a bruising fight. Sources say Ickes has warned her to gird for the battle of her life. “This is not a shoo-in,” admits an adviser. Giuliani and his surrogates would try to make an issue of her carpetbagging and question her commitment to fixing potholes in Syracuse. As much as she will energize Democratic loyalists, her candidacy would mobilize the right, become fodder for G.O.P. direct-mail fund raising and unite New York’s upstate conservatives–good news for Giuliani, who has never recovered their good graces since endorsing Mario Cuomo in the 1994 Governor’s race.

For a Republican, Giuliani also runs extremely well with many Democratic-leaning swing voters. His brutally efficient success in reducing crime, paring welfare rolls, fighting smut and ending vagrancy has endeared him to middle-class white ethnics outside Manhattan; his pro-choice, pro-immigrant, opera-friendly moderation on social issues makes him palatable to soccer moms. While hardened city dwellers mutter about Giuliani’s safer, duller New York, suburbanites love it. In the TIME/CNN survey, Giuliani received a favorability rating of 40% among New York City voters but outpolled Hillary 52% to 41% in the suburbs.

Then there’s her Jewish problem: she will have to explain to Jewish groups what she really meant last year when she called for Palestinian statehood. In the TIME/CNN poll, half of Jewish voters, who account for 10% of the state’s registered voters, say they disagree. While most say her position wouldn’t be sufficient reason to vote against her, Giuliani–who won 7 of 10 Jewish votes in 1997–is already exploiting the issue; last week he slapped her for “siding with the Palestinians against the Israelis.” This is, after all, the man who in 1995 had Yasser Arafat ushered out of a city-sponsored party for the U.N.’s 50th anniversary.

In many ways, Rudy and Hillary will be battling each other on the same centrist policy terrain. It will heighten the chance that the campaign will turn on personal politics–who gets uglier, and more rattled, in the charge and countercharge of a New York election. Giuliani won’t hesitate to go negative. In 1997 he accused his overmatched opponent, Ruth Messinger, of giving a party in the 1970s for an Attica prison inmate; suggested she supported X-rated video stores; and all but blamed her for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1957 move to Los Angeles. But Giuliani could pay a price for personal attacks on Hillary. So he may let the tabloids shred her instead–as they did her husband during the 1992 primary.

When it comes to press relations, the polished Clinton might seem to have a natural advantage over the mercurial mayor, but Giuliani deals with New York reporters every day, albeit icily; Hillary deals with them not at all. “The New York media being what they are,” says Bill Cunningham, who ran Moynihan’s last campaign, “they would be looking for new ways to bring up old questions.” How would Hillary hold up under scrutiny into Filegate, Travelgate, Whitewater, her commodities trades, to say nothing of inquiries about her marriage? On recent p.r.-friendly trips, she has frozen up when reporters pulled out their notepads. “She’s essentially been protected from the press for most of her First Ladydom,” says a friend and adviser. “If she runs, there’s going to be a pile-on.” Grunwald describes dealing with the New York press as “a hazing process. If you can take it, they respect you.” And if you can’t, they destroy you.

Why would she want to put up with it, especially when the prize is a six-year stint as a junior Senator? Perhaps because the alternative ways of pushing her issues are less lustrous. Grunwald says that “when somebody suggests that the U.S. Senate might be the best platform, you don’t dismiss it.” And there is a larger reason for Hillary to run. She has spent much of Clinton’s second term trying to define–in wonky confabs with intellectuals, party leaders and foreign heads of state–a “third way,” a progressive politics that hews neither to the left nor right and marries compassion with responsibility. Clinton’s education agenda–accountability and school choice but not vouchers–fits the mold. The trouble is that it looks too much like the moderate conservatism practiced by Giuliani and George W. Bush. Clinton’s fight for survival hasn’t allowed him to highlight differences with G.O.P. centrists; he has more effectively defined himself against far-right zealotry. That leaves the task to Gore and Hillary. A Hillary campaign could help forge a guiding agenda for the post-Clinton era.

So will she or won’t she? Maybe it is better to ask whether she should. “She may be the only person in the country,” Torricelli says, “who can contribute to the national debate simply by entering a race.” A Clinton-Giuliani matchup is tantalizing in part because, at its best, it would engage people in a way politics is seldom capable of doing these days. In 1964, on the night he won the U.S. Senate seat in New York, Bobby Kennedy quoted Tennyson: “Come my friends,/’Tis not too late to seek a better world.” That sort of belief in the possibilities of American politics no longer exists. Hillary’s run might just be a step toward restoring it.

–With reporting by Jay Branegan and James Carney/Washington, John Cloud and Elaine Rivera/New York and Karen Tumulty with Gore

For more on Hillary Clinton, visit time.com

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com