Off and running?

Hillary Clinton moves to hire a New York campaign staff.

Published April 17, 1999 10:34AM (EDT)

On the eve of her swing into New York next week, Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken the first concrete steps toward making a run for the Senate seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

For public consumption, Clinton is sticking to her stance that she's merely "considering" entering the race for the Senate. Behind the scenes, however, her White House staff is already making plans to hire a separate New York campaign staff to get ready for the November 2000 election.

One likely Clinton hire, sources say, is David Doak, a Washington consultant who most recently ran the media campaign that helped elect Democrat Gray Davis governor of California. Doak was also part of the firm that ran New York Mayor David Dinkins' successful campaign in 1989. According to one veteran New York political consultant: "The decision has already been made. The word around New York is that she's going with David Doak."

Clinton's press office did not return phone calls Friday. Neither did Harold Ickes, the former White House advisor who is now Clinton's top political advisor on the New York race. Doak, who has publicly expressed interest in having a role in the campaign, told Salon News he has not yet been hired by Clinton. "We have not made any kind of agreement. I've talked to people in the campaign, if [campaign] is really the right word."

Asked whether he expects to be hired, Doak said, "That's totally her choice. I've been a friend for 25 years. I think the world of her. It's certainly her decision, but I'll help her any way I could."

The Hillary for Senate bandwagon took off with a bang in February, just as her husband's impeachment trial came to an end. The very day President Clinton was acquitted, she reportedly sat down with Ickes to begin talking about the Moynihan seat. Throngs of New York Democrats, including Moynihan, Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel, former New York Mayor Ed Koch and many others, have urged Clinton to run, envisioning a hot race against the likely Republican contender, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- a matchup that could rival the presidential campaign in excitement, and in campaign spending as well.

The tantalizing possibility of a Clinton 2000 campaign made the covers of Time and Newsweek on March 1, after the first lady decorously confirmed her interest in late February: "I will give careful thought to a potential candidacy in order to make a decision later this year," she said in a prepared media statement. Since then, she's added little to the public record on the subject.

Clinton's silence hasn't stopped people close to her from speculating about her alleged intentions in the media. But the messages conflict. Some friends and staff members have insisted she won't run, that she's tired of the glare of the spotlight and doesn't want to endure a New York media hazing. Others tell reporters she's enthusiastic about running a campaign of her own, after years in the shadow of her husband.

In New York, knowledgeable Democrats insist that a final decision still has not been made. But they say Clinton is better organized and more informed about New York's fractious political world than has previously been reported. "She knows more about upstate New York already than Geraldine Ferraro knew at the end of the campaign," said one New York source, referring to the Queens Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate last year. "In fact, she knows more about upstate than Giuliani," the source added.

New York Democrats say Clinton has "feelers out" to leading fund-raisers, while Washington sources say she has told her staff that she is about to hire a New York campaign staff. This week Ickes told the Associated Press that Clinton's upcoming New York trip would include multiple stops across the state -- including the Republican bastions of western New York state and suburban New York City -- to give her a sense of what running a New York campaign might be like. "There'll be more press, more people taking to her and so I think she'll come away with a much better feel about the intensity of the situation,'' Ickes said.

Clinton's delay in making a final decision is a politically touchy issue. New York Democrats want her to make up her mind fairly quickly, to give other Democrats time to raise money if she decides not to run, in a race that could cost up to $20 million. Rep. Nita Lowey of Westchester County has declared she will run for the Democratic Senate nomination if Clinton does not. To keep her options open, but avoid hurting Lowey, Clinton and her supporters explored the possibility of establishing a campaign fund that could be used for either candidate, but they could not do that legally. So Clinton offered to come to New York to raise funds for Lowey if she does not run herself.

Sources say Clinton has been encouraged by a sharp decline in the political fortunes of her most likely Republican opponent, Giuliani, in the wake of controversy over the New York Police Department's killing of African street vendor Amadou Diallo in February. A March 28 New York Daily News poll found the mayor's popularity has "plunged to an all-time low" in the aftermath of the Diallo shooting, when Giuliani defended the police department and treated Diallo's family and supporters callously. His approval rating is now only 40 percent, down a whopping 20 points from just six months ago. Seventy-three percent of those polled objected to his criticism of the police protests, which he dismissed as "silly" publicity stunts.

Even more worrisome for Giuliani, he may now face political opposition from former supporters and fellow Republicans, regardless of what Clinton decides to so. The mayor's relations with Republican Gov. George Pataki have been strained ever since Giuliani supported incumbent Democrat Mario Cuomo over Pataki in 1994. The mayor has also angered other party faithful with his vocal support of immigration and unfettered abortion rights, and his backing of President Clinton during the recent impeachment crisis.

Now Republicans are striking back. Pataki was among the scores of critics who lashed out at the mayor's handling of the Diallo killing. The New York Times reported recently that Pataki and Alphonse D'Amato are tacitly backing Long Island Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, whose campaign war chest was approaching a hefty $2 million by the end of last year, in a possible primary challenge to Giuliani for the Senate seat. Lazio thinks his popularity among more traditional Republican voters could lead to a primary upset.

Giuliani's appeal as a candidate in a general election matchup is based largely on his strong crossover appeal in the city of New York, which is overwhelmingly Democratic. But bipartisan support is useless in a closed party primary, and Lazio, also a moderate Republican, is considered a stronger candidate in the New York suburbs, which typically turn out more Republican voters.

But Clinton's poll numbers have dropped, too, since she began toying publicly with her candidacy. According to the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, Clinton enjoyed an 11-point lead over Giuliani in a head-to-head match in January, with the support of 52 percent of those polled. By March 26, Clinton's margin had dwindled to a little more than 2 points, with only 48 percent of those polled. Other polls indicated a similar tightening of the race over the same period.

New York pollsters say the slippage is natural. "Certainly everything's looking much more competitive as the [election] draws closer," says Lee Miringoff of the Marist Institute. Early polls showing Clinton doing well in upstate New York, a Republican stronghold, have given way to more typical upstate Republican support for Guiliani, downstate Democratic support for Clinton. But the polls, which survey registered voters, can't measure a potential surge in the polls that a Clinton-Giuliani race would likely inspire. "People have raised the possibility that she will energize the Democratic base -- minorities and urban voters -- which doesn't like Giuliani," Miringoff says.

Some political tea-leaf readers saw signs this week that Clinton had decided not to run, when she said she would not attend a New York State Democratic Party dinner scheduled for April 29. But New York Democrats cautioned against reading too much into that decision. "She had never been confirmed at the dinner, she was only invited," one official said. "And I think she could not attend that dinner as merely the first lady. It would have been like a coronation, a political coming out, and she wasn't ready for that."

By Joan Walsh

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democratic Party Hillary Rodham Clinton Joan Walsh Rudy Giuliani