He vs. she, part 1

Even new resident Monica can't handle this one, as Rudy and Hillary prepare to take their fearsome domestic quarrel to upstate New York.

Published September 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

One of the newest residents of Greenwich Village, Monica Lewinsky, has already decided who she'll vote for in next year's senatorial race:

No one.

"I'm not voting," she said. "I'm a little sick of politics right now."

Lewinsky may have moved to the wrong place if she wants to avoid politics, however, as New Yorkers prepare for what promises to be the highest profile Senate race in American history: First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton against New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

"The race is not this year, although you'd think it was," says former New York Mayor Ed Koch. "It'll be the longest Senate race in the history of America. I hope people don't get bored."

Fat chance. Nauseous, maybe -- but the race promises to be anything but boring.

Clinton and Giuliani are both larger-than-life figures whose first names are household words. Hillary! Rudy! Each claims grandiose achievements and a monopoly on righteousness; each is always right, their opponents always wrong.

Both are wildly adored and viciously despised.

Both are historical figures. High schools will be named after them someday.

A Fiorello H. LaGuardia and Eleanor Roosevelt for the millennium -- but hungrier, angrier.

The campaign (assuming it happens -- neither Rudy nor Hillary has officially declared candidacy yet) is going to be insane. For the media, the only bigger matchup would be Madonna vs. Howard Stern. And maybe not even that.

If the New York Post didn't already exist, someone would have to invent it, right now, just for this race.

On the political front, it's already been brutally Darwinian. A year ahead of time, two well-meaning, successful members of Congress -- Rep. Nita Lowey, a motherly Westchester County Democrat, and Rick Lazio, a young buck Long Island Republican -- have been rudely elbowed out of the way to make room for the stars. Plenty of Hillary Lovers, Hillary Haters, Rudy Lovers and Rudy Haters are already pouring millions of dollars into the appropriate campaign buckets.

Rudy's May fund-raiser at Midtown's Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, which featured Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as the honorary chairman, is said to have netted $2.1 million, probably the biggest in state history for an unannounced candidate.

Each campaign is shooting to raise upwards of $20 million, which could make this not just the longest, but the most expensive Senate race in history -- topping the 1994 California match between Dianne Feinstein and Michael Huffington.

If it were just Hillary running, or just Rudy, the fanfare wouldn't amount to a fraction of this.

Indeed, it's the combination, the anticipated ugliness, the At-last! pairing of nemeses for each of these intimidating forces of nature.

It's gonna be great.

A buzzer-beater away from Madison Square Garden, on the eighth floor of a nondescript office building undergoing some irritating and no-doubt symbolic construction, earnest young men and women slave away at the Hillary Rodham Clinton for U.S. Senate Exploratory Committee.

The offices are small and cramped and unimpressive -- typical New York fare -- and the poor young woman handling the phones this Monday afternoon barely gets a moment to breathe. "Hillary 2000, hold please; Hillary 2000, hold please; Hillary 2000, hold please ..."

Calls come in for "Neera" and "Gabrielle" and "Samara," exactly the kinds of names you'd expect at Hillary 2000. Most, however, are for Clinton's overworked press secretary, Howard Wolfson, who is more or less running the shop -- for now. (New York liberal pols Mandy Grunwald and Harold Ickes, pollster Mark Penn and Hillary's right-hand woman, Maggie Williams are involved, too, but they're all doing their best to remain invisible to date.)

The waiting room is covered with immense color images of Clinton in her familiar off-white or dark blue suits, her brilliant blonde coif -- a flattering cut it only took her a half-century to find -- lending her the celebrity look fans need. It's no wonder she was on the cover of the premier issue of Talk.

Interns (though you'd think the campaign would come up with a new name for them) shuttle in and out. One spends maybe 45 minutes deliberately stapling newspaper-clipping photos of Clinton to a bulletin board.

But images and a new blond 'do aren't going to be enough for Hillary to prevail in this campaign. It's going to be a relentless, grueling war, leading Republicans to already whisper that, at the end of the day, Hillary might not even run. Polls right now have Hillary and Rudy still relatively close, but, as any seasoned pol will tell you, it ain't the poll numbers that matter -- it's their direction.

With that in mind, the Battery may be down, but it's nothing compared to Hillary's numbers. According to Marist Institute polls, Hillary was beating Rudy 52 percent to 42 percent in January, but since then, their arrows have headed along different trajectories. Support for Hillary has nose-dived all the way down to 40 while Rudy's numbers have shot up to 49. That's a net 19-point gain for Rudy in nine months.

"If the election were held tomorrow, Rudy would win," says Koch, a former Rudy fan who now supports Hillary. "With the passage of time, voters will distinguish between the two in terms of their ability to work in the Senate and get things done for the state of New York. People will ultimately conclude that a Democratic philosophy will be better for New York, and that as a messenger for that philosophy Hillary is a better fit for New York."

Among plenty of Hillary surrogates, like Koch, you can already hear a strategy to downplay their woman versus the other side's man, in favor of talking parties instead.

In addition to our booming economy, Hillary has a few other numbers working for her: registered Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans statewide -- 4,999,541 to 3,078,574, as of April 1.

Rudy might be a liberal Republican -- he once worked for RFK, and voted for McGovern in '72, plus he leans left on abortion, gay rights, and gun control. But he came out in favor of the GOP's tax-cut plans, with more "team-player" moves sure to follow. Democrats therefore plan on tying Rudy to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who is widely perceived throughout the Empire State as being anti-New York and pro-South.

Hillary seems to embrace the partisan approach."The Republican Party [tax-cut] bill ... would be in effect a statement that would ask us to cut and run on our obligations to older Americans," she said at a Sept. 14 appearance in Great Neck, Long Island, in front of an audience of -- you guessed it -- older Americans. "It would break our faith with the seniors in New York, and I would fight it, if I were in the Congress now."

The last Senate fight in these parts was a year ago, between the smarty-pants Democrat, Rep. Chuck Schumer of Brooklyn, and the shameless Republican, then-Sen. Alphonse D'Amato. The main battleground then is the same one now:

The suburbs.

Like Chappaqua, for instance, where mishpocheh Clinton just bought a $1.7 million, 11-room Dutch colonial, using a fishy loan from a supporter.

There's the rest of Westchester County, and Long Island -- both Nassau and Suffolk -- plus all the women (and as many as possible of the Reagan Democrats) in Buffalo, Erie County, Rochester, Albany and Syracuse.

Schumer tailored his message to these folks by talking about upstate jobs, education and health care. For the women in the suburbs he threw in gun control and abortion rights. He ran a textbook campaign that also appealed to the state's exhaustion with D'Amato, who had dragged the state through various ethics debacles and a racist joke or two, and by being just generally annoying.

Eighteen years was enough. D'Amato fatigue had set in.

But there's another kind of fatigue at work this time around, and it doesn't cut so well for the Democrats.

They know it, too. You can see it in the fact that just last week, Hillary's brothers, Anthony and Hugh Rodham, backed out of an $118 million scheme to grow and import hazelnuts in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. As first disclosed by the Washington Post, not long ago les freres Rodham appeared at a press conference with Aslan Abashidze, a political leader with ties to an alleged mobster. After a Post op-ed hammered the Rodhams for the deal, the brothers announced they were backing out of it, expressing reluctance "to do any harm to the first lady or the administration."

One senses that the brothers Rodham didn't have much say in the matter. It doesn't much seem to matter if the Rodhams were up to no good.

After all, you can't buy a blintz in the former Soviet Union without bumping into someone with ties to the mob.

As the Clintons have maybe -- finally -- learned, it ain't the impropriety, it's the appearance, that matters.

Still, it doesn't even have to be impropriety to make news.

Hillary can't so much as look at a doctor's office these days without the New York Post blaring a headline that she's considering plastic surgery.

The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, discovered that one of Hillary's grandparents had married a Jew and suddenly she was accused of shamelessly pandering, trying to shed her goyish kopf in exchange for one more yiddesche.

"Oy Vey!" blared the Post.

Meanwhile, Hillary 2000 campaign workers say that the Forward came to them, not the other way around, so they faced a no-win situation of either being accused of pandering or denying a link to an important ethnic block. They tried for the middle ground and got slapped for it, unfairly.

Of course, you hardly know who to blame for that. As we've all learned the hard way, you never quite know what to believe with the Clintons. With them, a cigar is never just a cigar.

"And Monica's apartment is only 36 miles away from their Chappaqua estate!" gloats a Republican National Committee staffer.

One of the reasons for the "Oy Vey!" headlines is that Hillary hasn't yet been able to focus her campaign on the issues she wants to talk about.

"The problem is the same old one," says a Democratic political operative "The Clintons are all about polling. They don't know what they believe in. Every question that comes in to that campaign should be put through the context of her message, of her as the 'Education Senator' or whatever."

If you ask her campaign or her supporters, however, they'll tell you that Hillary is indeed focused on her issues -- education and health care.

"The No. 1 issue is comprehensive health insurance and care," Koch says. "And people will say, 'Didn't she muck it up the first time?' Well, yes, she did. She didn't bring in people who disagreed with her. But now she is. And when she was talking about it then, 32 million Americans didn't have insurance. Now it's 43 million. So the issue is still with us. And it's a very compelling issue. Women are affected more, since they live longer than men, and 11 million children are involved. The Republican Party is against prescription drugs for Medicare coverage, so I believe that issue is a winner."

Bring it on, says an executive at the RNC. "The last time she talked about health care was 1994," he says. "Our candidates ran on it, and we won the House and Senate."

"Another important question is who's better on education," Koch says, "And she can win that one ... Rudy can't work with anybody, and you have to work with people when it comes to education."

True, Rudy's battles with the various chancellors of the city school system are legendary, and he also recently launched a $21 million, 3,000-student voucher plan.

But Hillary may not be able to exploit that effectively in the campaign because of those suburban swing voters, many of whom commute precisely because the city's schools are so abysmal.

Still, Hillary should be able to pluck out her education bona fides from her days in Arkansas -- Children's Defense Fund board member, founder of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families -- even though her husband's administration has been somewhat lackluster on the issue.

In any case, Hillary has yet to blend her talking points into a coherent message. She's still doing her "listening tour," taking in what the voters have to say. Hillary staffers marvel at the fans who appear at these events, as if she were a rock star. But groupies only get you so far. September's Marist Institute poll showed Rudy clobbering Hillary among suburban voters, 62 percent to 28.

Then there's the carpetbagger issue, which Republicans in the U.S. House tried to highlight last week by adding a provision to the campaign finance bill that would require the first lady to reimburse the government for using Air Force Hillary for her campaign. Forty-five House Democrats supported the measure and it won 261-167. Ouch.

"The carpetbagging issue has resonance now, but it won't in six months," Koch says. Koch and others are quick to point out that Sens. Robert Kennedy and James Buckley won seats despite the fact that their paths to the Senate began along I-95.

But, as pollster John Zogby recently pointed out, RFK ran just a year after his brother was assassinated, and it wasn't the easy task one would think. While RFK won New York City overwhelmingly, as Hillary will do doubt do (Rudy's people have already written off scoring more than 35 percent or so in the mayor's own city), RFK did so when the city held 42 percent of the state electorate.

Today, the city vote accounts for only 27 percent of the state's total.

Besides, in his 1964 Senate race, RFK lost the suburbs.

Zogby's summer poll asked New Yorkers what he called "a simple, open-ended question: 'What is the No. 1 thing you would ask (Giuliani/Clinton) if (he/ she) were to run for the Senate?'"

Rudy was asked about education, health care, and upstate New York.

Two of Hillary's top three: "Why is she running in New York?" And "Why did she stay with him?"

"In other words," Zogby wrote in a New York Times op-ed, "1 voter in 3 is already 'off message' -- not concentrating on the issues Mrs. Clinton will want to stress."

Speaking of issues the first lady doesn't want to stress, there's the brouhaha that erupted when her husband announced clemency for Puerto Rican terrorists. Law enforcement, editorial boards, Capitol Hill Republicans and Mayor Giuliani blasted President Clinton's decision. When asked where she stood, Hillary stuttered, looking not only clueless about what was going on in the White House, but out of her element in New York's gruelingly demanding ethnic constituency.

In the end, she opposed clemency, but she did so without informing a few key Latino pols. They whined about it, and thus she stumbled once again. Without question, as New York salesman Willy Loman's wife once said, attention must be paid. During the heated 1998 Senate face-off between Schumer and D'Amato, "the Schumer campaign didn't order Taco Bell without getting the OK from [Bronx County Democratic Chairman Roberto] Ramirez," says one in-the-know Democrat.

Ramirez and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and a host of other Latino pols expressed disappointment in Hillary's move but seemed ready to move on. There's a lot that's unfair about the melee, but the substance of it won't be remembered as much as her incompetence in the sewer of New York City politics, where even a man like Bronx congressman Jose Serrano can command front pages if he knows how to play the fiddle.

At best an irrelevancy as a congressman, Serrano is best known in Washington for talking about his love of Frank Sinatra. But he successfully used the clemency debacle to draw attention to himself making like the Chairman of the Board, even though it's common knowledge that his two rivals -- Ramirez and Ferrer -- are the Latinos with the huevos in New York. Thanks to Hillary's screw-up, Serrano told the press that he was reconsidering endorsing Hillary -- which was enough to give the story an extra media bounce, earn Serrano a flattering profile in the New York Times, and make Hillary look like a tourist.

Welcome to New York. Now get the fuck out.

And Hillary still has to contend with Al Sharpton, Irish activists, the Italians, gays, lesbians, Caribbeans, Catholics and ad infinitum. Next up probably will be a small vocal pool of Jewish activists who want clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. Rudy has already supported clemency for the man who many feel was given life in solitary because of the lingering anti-Semitism of the Bush administration. But it's an ugly issue, one that Hillary clearly is reluctant to touch.

"There are going to be a lot more FALN-type controversies," predicts a White House senior staffer.

Not to mention renewed questions about Whitewater, Rose Law Firm billing records, the health-care debacle, Troopergate, Zippergate, the impeachment hearings and all the stuff we all so desperately want to move beyond.

Oy vey, indeed.

A few miles down Broadway, at City Hall, two-term Mayor Rudy Giuliani is full of kinetic energy, a coiled spring ready to burst.

So far his campaign is bare-bones: a temporary campaign head, his assistant, a fundraiser, and a receptionist. That's it. The phone calls and checks are coming in, but it's all disconcertingly low-key. As is Rudy himself, who has been uncharacteristically restrained these last few months. If he chortles over the first lady's clumsy entrie into the five boroughs and beyond, he does so behind closed doors.

He is, after all, the mayor. He presides. He rules. And, in addition to raking in unbelievable amounts of cash, he somehow managed to dispose of potential challenger Lazio -- who had more conservative credibility and therefore more potential for upstate support -- with nary a bead of sweat on his public brow.

Word on the street is that the RNC did some polling and found that Lazio, who just turned 41, just didn't have the stature or celebrity to touch Hillary. The only one who did was Rudy. Thus, the tale goes, some RNC consigliere were dispatched to Albany to pay a little visit on New York Gov. George Pataki, Rudy's upstate rival ever since Rudy endorsed Pataki's opponent, Democrat then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, back in '94. Since then, Pataki has seen his patron, D'Amato, go down in flames, and a Democrat win the attorney general's office.

"Pataki was faced with the prospect of whether or not he wanted to lose another one for the state GOP," a Rudy confidante says. Thus, as talk has it, the RNC leaned on Pataki, who leaned on Lazio, who withdrew from the race.

Rudy's celebrity obviously isn't all he has to run on. He'll make the case that voters should let him do for the state what he did for the city. And out will come his three major talking points: 1) New York was once considered the most dangerous large city in America, but FBI stats now show that it's the safest. 2) New York once was known as the welfare capital of the country, but now it's recognized for running the largest and most successful welfare-to-work initiative anywhere. And, 3) Rudy shook up the "heavy-taxing, anti-business philosophy" of the city that had resulted in the loss of over 300,000 private-sector jobs between '90 and '93.

"Rudy's targeted tax cuts and pro-business philosophy have led to the highest five-year period of private-sector job growth in the city's history," his campaign crows. A $2 billion budget deficit transformed into a $2 billion surplus! And, of course, a stat soon to be as well known to New Yorkers as former Yankee Roger Maris' 61 season homers: 330,000 new jobs.

When Hillary observes, as she recently did on a listening tour, that "if upstate New York were a separate state, it would rank 49th in job-creation and economic development," she may be unwittingly leading the overture for Rudy's aria: 330,000 new jobs; 330,000 new jobs; 330,000 new jobs.

But of course, Rudy doesn't anticipate much help from Hillary. Rudy's campaign expects that Hillary, or her surrogates, will attack the mayor's temperament -- and his administration's disasters.

"The 'Tough Rudy' who everyone liked in his first term has been replaced with the 'Bully Rudy,'" says the senior White House staffer. "Everything's going to be viewed through the prism of "police brutality victim Abner Louima and police shooting victim Amadou Diallo.

That Rudy has revitalized New York only by sacrificing certain key threads of the Constitution is a criticism that no doubt will win over a lot of readers of the Village Voice. In his recent kung-fu fighting against the city's cultural elite, he has been particularly -- though characteristically -- egregious and tyrannical, critics say. Rudy is threatening to withhold $7 million in city funds if the Brooklyn Museum of Art doesn't cancel an exhibit that features a collage of the Virgin Mary fashioned out of polyester resin, oil paint, and elephant dung.

But, Rudy's supporters say, how much will trifles like this sway the suburbanites? They seem more likely to be moved by Rudy's ability to point to the 50-percent drop in overall crime than anything Norman Siegal of the New York Civil Liberties Union might have to say.

"The city's homicide rate is at its lowest level since 1964," Rudy's campaign documents boast. "According to FBI statistics, between 1993 and 1997, New York crime reduction accounted for a full 25 percent of the nation's drop in crime. The numbers of shootings have fallen by 61.4 percent between 1993 and 1997." And, Rudy will counter on the stump, "shootings by police officers have declined 62 percent since 1993."

Despite that stat, however, the Louima and Diallo cases cast long shadows. But if Rudy has written off the minority vote, and even the majority of his own city which overwhelmingly reelected him just two years ago, that's going to require attracting a huge majority among those much-coveted suburbanites.

The Louima and Diallo outrages cost Rudy plenty of in-city support from his traditional voting blocks. "Fewer than a quarter of all New Yorkers believe that the police treat blacks and whites evenly, with blacks in particular viewing the police with fear and distrust," a March New York Times poll revealed. More than two-thirds of the blacks polled believed that the policies of Rudy's administration have directly spiked an increase in police brutality.

And a March Daily News poll taken in the aftermath of the Diallo shooting showed Giuliani's approval rating at an all-time low -- down to 40 percent after a peak of 65 percent around his reelection in November '97. Support from Jewish voters was down from 81 percent in November '97 to 59 percent in March; support from Latino voters plummeted from 64 percent to 24 percent. Two-thirds of all New York voters disapproved of Rudy's criticism of those who protested the Diallo shooting at One Police Plaza. Fifty-seven percent of those polled said that the mayor's tough, take-no-prisoners policing "interferes with the rights of innocent people."

Since March, of course, Rudy's support has bounced back. But New Yorkers have long memories. And Hillary will no doubt do everything she can to remind them -- and their suburban friends -- of Louima and Diallo. Rudy can rant and rave that police shootings are down, that the criticism is unfair, that he quickly condemned the Louima incident. But his relationship with those sympathetic to the plight of minorities is strained, and people remember things like plungers and 41 bullets.

And by the time Team Hillary gets done with him -- if it does its job, which is by no means a sure thing -- it will seem clear that Rudy's bull-headed, sanctimonious pugilism served him far better when he was a U.S. attorney than it ever would in the U.S. Senate.

When he went after Anthony "Tony Ducks" Coralla, Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, his anger and fire worked wonders. But outside the courtroom, where his energy is channeled to combat all sorts of others -- former Police Commissioner William Bratton, strippers, vendors, cabbies, gardeners, Tina Brown, New York Magazine advertising executives, and jay-walkers -- Hillary (or, more likely, Hillary's allies) will argue, Rudy's prosecutorial mien is more histrionics than heroics, and it's ill-suited to Capitol Hill.

The waiting room of Rudy's high-security campaign office contains wall blow-ups of the 1997 reelection endorsements of all four major New York daily newspapers -- the Times, the Post, the Daily News and Newsday. But more than one of these endorsements also voiced concerns about Rudy's personality -- which makes the wall decorations rather odd and disjointed pages of campaign literature.

"Mr. Giuliani's combative temperament is a bit like nuclear fission," the Times reelection endorsement reads. "His pugnaciousness is less attractive when it is aimed at an individual whose only sin was to make a legitimate criticism of the administration."

What's unclear is whether Rudy's prickly exterior will really matter that much in the Senate race.

Though the Marist poll indicates that Hillary is perceived as having a more likable personality than Rudy (69 percent find her likable, just 45 percent for the mayor) and would make a better neighbor (66 percent think she'd make a "good neighbor," to Rudy's 57 percent), few New Yorkers seem under the impression that they're electing a best friend. Rudy's pugnaciousness has its plusses: He is perceived as more "honest and trustworthy" than the first lady (the first lady!), 59 percent to her 48 percent. And, of course, Rudy wins the election match-up, which is really the only litmus test that counts.

"He can't help himself," Koch says. "His temperament is like that of a scorpion. If you ask a scorpion, 'Why do you sting?' he says, 'Because it's my nature.' Rudy's the same way. He can't help himself when he demonizes people or tries to destroy his critics. He will try to smear her. He will take the low road. I told Hillary she should ignore his personal attacks and leave them to her surrogates to address."

And she'll certainly have no shortage of surrogates.

"It's obvious that Giuliani is awkward dealing with blacks," powerhouse Harlem Rep. Charlie Rangel told reporters during the Diallo aftermath. "He would just rather not see blacks and Puerto Ricans anywhere. I don't know where he was raised or what school he went to, but it's abundantly clear that the mayor does not include among his friends any African-Americans. Because if he did, he would get better advice than he's getting. Whether he likes it or not, we are his constituents, and it's our community that is feeling the pain and the suffering of his indifference."

"Ouch!" you might say.

But how much will Rangel's rhetoric matter to an unemployed white guy in Rochester?

"This race, in many ways, will be about who makes the most mistakes," says a professional New York Democrat.

Hillary's up on that count so far, but it's a few lifetimes until November 2000. Both Hillary and Rudy are following their business plans -- Hillary's listening, Rudy's talking, and both are raising gobs of cash.

Not much has stood in the path of either candidate. But now Rudy has in front of him a woman just as presumptuous and pugnacious as he. "Fat Tony" is a lightweight compared to Rudy's latest foe.

Two mighty, mightily flawed leaders, undeclared candidates facing off in the undeclared capital of the country: Millions will pour in to fund the shockingly bright reds and blues that paint Hillary and Rudy as heroic; millions more will be devoted to the uglier hues -- the dingy grays and muddy reds.

Hillary as a vicious, carpetbagging Lady Macbeth, presiding over the most corrupt, tax-happy administration in history and suddenly presumptuously buying a Yankees cap.

Rudy as a bigoted totalitarian, taking all the credit and none of the responsibility, awkward and mean-spirited and all too willing to take a lesson from Faust.

Hideous egos seeking power and standing for nothing!

Maybe, by the time this ends, one of them won't have a high school named after him or her, after all.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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