Let the circus begin

Rudy Giuliani visits Little Rock to ridicule his carpetbagging New York Senate rival, Hillary Clinton.

Topics: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani,

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani came to Arkansas Tuesday to visit the home state of the Democratic candidate he’s expecting to face in the 2000 New York Senate election.

With a throng of media following his every move, Giuliani raised money on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s turf and cracked jokes about his potential opponent’s carpetbagging. He pointed to his wristwatch with a New York Yankees insignia on its face.

“I’ve been a New York Yankee since birth,” said Giuliani, in a jab at the first lady and her recent transformation from a Cubs to a Yankees fan.

The media circus showed the extent to which a Clinton-Giuliani matchup will be a national race, giving its partisans a chance to play out the ideological battles that came to a boil during the impeachment debacle last year.

Giuliani and his supporters aimed nonstop zingers at Hillary Clinton, who has been the target of carpetbagging charges since she announced her interest in the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She has never lived in New York nor worked in the state.

A New York flag flew on the Capital Hotel, where a luncheon fund-raiser for Giuliani was held, just across the street from the Excelsior Hotel, the site of President Clinton’s alleged encounter with Paula Jones. Giuliani said he was so happy to see the flag that he called home and told City Hall “to find an Arkansas flag and fly it for a few days.”

Giuliani joked earlier this year about whether he should run for the Senate in Arkansas. Republican leaders in Arkansas jumped at the chance to show Southern hospitality to the man who is taking on the liberal first lady.

On an extremely sultry Arkansas day, Giuliani was greeted by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, both Republicans, who invited Giuliani to Arkansas. Hillary Clinton lived in the governor’s mansion for 12 years, and it was on that front porch where Giuliani greeted supporters today.

“And he may announce his candidacy for a major political race in Arkansas,” joked Huckabee, as he handed Giuliani a framed Arkansas Traveler certificate making the mayor an honorary Arkansan.

The day clearly centered on the battle of Giuliani vs. Clinton. On NBC’s “Today” early Tuesday, Huckabee set the stage when he said many Arkansans feel abandoned by the first lady. Later he told Giuliani: “Seems like you have been here more often than your opponent has been lately. Be sure to register to vote while you are here.”

Outside the governor’s mansion gates, a group of six women who call themselves the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, Memphis Chapter stood with anti-Hillary signs making a quiet statement. “We have had enough of the Clintons,” said Donna Kay Bridgeforth. “We think its hysterical Rudy would come to Little Rock. It turns the whole carpetbagger thing around.”

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Giuliani tried to talk about more than the Clintons. At a press conference hosted by the Greater Little Rock Chapter of Republican Women, he held forth upon New York’s declining crime rate, gun control and the media’s impact on violence. Regardless of his chosen topic, however, his audience kept returning to Hillary.

When a supporter asked if he’d prepared his anti-Hillary agenda yet, Giuliani quipped that he hadn’t yet thought much about the first lady, because “last time I checked the rolls, she wasn’t a constituent of mine.”

The same day as Giuliani’s visit, protesters rallied against the city’s plan to rename a historic Little Rock street President Clinton Avenue. The protest gave Giuliani a chance to poke fun at Hillary Clinton’s New York “listening” tour. “If I become a candidate in Arkansas, I will have a strong opinion on that. Right now I am just listening,” said Giuliani.

Arkansas Democrats put a positive spin on the Giuliani lovefest. “The more Republican money that leaves the state, the better for us,” said Glen Hooks, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

New York Democrats had more negative words for the visit. “It’s a cheap prank, unworthy of the mayor of the city of New York and a man who would be a U.S. senator,” said Judith Hope, chairwoman of the New York State Democratic Committee. “But it is typical of Rudy Giuliani.”

Giuliani defended his trip to Arkansas and said it wasn’t unusual for him to visit a state other than his own while campaigning. He visited 20 states last year, he said.

“I enjoy traveling, learning about all parts of the country,” said Giuliani.

Republican organizers would not say how much money Giuliani raised in Arkansas. Luncheon tickets sold for $500 and at least 50 were bought. Richard Bearden, former director of the state Republican Party and now a Little Rock political consultant, said the event would raise more money than that, because some people contributed to the mayor’s prospective U.S. Senate campaign though they couldn’t attend the luncheon, while others donated more for their tickets than the required $500. Giuliani will visit Louisiana and Alabama for fund-raising events this week before returning to New York.

The White House didn’t return calls seeking comment about Giuliani’s visit. No one has said when the first lady will return to Arkansas, or if she will do similar fund-raising in the state.

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

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