The gloves are already off

A Vince Foster bumper sticker is just a sign of things to come in the New York Senate race.

Published February 8, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The waiting room of Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign office is missing only the soothing background strumming of a guitar. "We are all brothers and sisters," reads the "quote of the day" on the wall. "No one walks their path alone. What you put into the lives of others comes back into your own."

The collage of bumper stickers in the volunteer room of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's campaign headquarters creates a slightly different tone.

"Pillory Hillary," reads one.

"If Clinton's the answer, it must be a really stupid question," reads another.

And, most surprisingly, another ominously asks: "What did Vince know?"

The reference to former White House deputy counsel Vince Foster, and the ugly and unproven conspiracy theories that surround his suicide in 1993, are a hallmark of the most ravenous Clinton-haters, those who consider Foster's death as conclusive a Clinton crime as was the president's adventures with Monica Lewinsky. After a thorough investigation, even independent counsel Ken Starr concluded that Foster committed suicide.

But the sticker shouldn't be too much of a shock. As anticipated, it's already shaping up to be nasty here in New York, a city that likes its politics raw. Giuliani slaps Clinton for appearing on stage with race-baiting demagogue Rev. Al Sharpton; Clinton slaps back at Giuliani for sitting on a dais with Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider. Giuliani spokeswoman Kim Serafin says that Clinton "has failed to reimburse taxpayers for [her] political trips" on "30 political trips to New York on government-owned jets." Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson counters that Giuliani has full-time city staffers working on campaign-related activities.

With the latest Quinnipiac College poll, from Feb. 2 to 5, showing the candidates neck and neck -- Giuliani with 45 percent, Clinton with 42 percent -- it's certainly anybody's race. One of the more interesting dynamics of the Rudy-Hillary match-up is that so few voters are undecided -- and thus the two are competing for the roughly one in eight who isn't already firmly behind one or the other.

Thus, both campaigns seem to have decided that it's important not only to douse themselves with visual and rhetorical perfume, but to point out the stink wafting over from the other side. "This'll be a race about who voters hate the least," says Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report.

But will that undecided 13 percent be moved by accusations of illicit airplane reimbursement or snipes that City Hall staffers are actually talking to reporters about the Senate race while on the government dime?

Says Cook, "You know, people are always talking about how 'tough' New York politics are, but I don't find New York politics 'tough' as much as 'petty.' I mean, look at this ballot access stuff" -- when George W. Bush had New York Gov. George Pataki and New York GOP Chairman William Powers try to keep John McCain
off the ballot, a tactic they recently abandoned. "I mean, that's real chicken-shit stuff. It reminds me of junior high school."

The "Vince" bumper sticker is perhaps also symbolic of the strain of anti-Clinton zeal the mayor is tapping into through what campaign manager Bruce Teitelbaum refers to as an "aggressive" direct-mail campaign.

In January, Teitelbaum announced that the mayor's campaign committee -- Friends of Giuliani (FOG) -- had broken New York Senate off-year fund-raising records, raking in an astounding $12 million in 1999. Much of this is due to FOG's hiring of direct-mail consultant Richard A. Viguerie, a red-meat conservative who has -- through his American Target Advertising in Fairfax, Va. -- made a nice living through mass mailings aimed at scaring the bejeesus out of common folks.

One letter Viguerie's organization wrote on behalf of Judicial Watch -- the anti-Clinton, lawsuit-happy organization helmed by political tsetse fly Larry Klayman -- suggested that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's death was caused not by a plane crash, but by an assassin's bullet. The murder was covered up by the Clinton administration, the letter ominously alleged, because Brown was "ready to spill the beans."

In addition to using his considerable direct-mail talents on behalf of Oliver North, Sen. Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan -- whom Giuliani once called "racist" -- Viguerie was resoundingly condemned for penning a letter in the mid-1980s scaring senior citizens into donating money lest Congress enact "billion-dollar cuts in Medicare funding." Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Roth, R-Del., called the mailing "misleading" and "a serious mistake ... We are not here to try to scare senior citizens with respect to their health care."

Regardless of Roth's take on his work, Viguerie's mailings produce cash, which is the bottom line in a business built on bottom lines. Thus, Viguerie has helped FOG draft letters scaring Americans by the prospect of not just a possible Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but perhaps even a President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"If she gets to the Senate," reads one Giuliani fund-raising letter, "Mrs. Clinton will immediately become the champion of every left-wing cause you can imagine. But my guess is that Mrs. Clinton sees her Senate race as just a stepping stone for even higher office."

"The left-wing elite is pouring everything into this race," continues the letter from the mayor. Another letter snidely refers to Clinton as an "overnight Yankee fan."

"The media would love it if she ran against me," reads another fund-raising letter from Giuliani, whose 1997 mayoral reelection was endorsed by the New York Post, New York Daily News, New York Times and New York Newsday. "But what about her record? The only real undertaking and position of hers anyone knows about is her failed effort to have the government take over health care."

"The fact is, Hillary Clinton is a leader of the ultra left wing Democrats," reads another letter from Giuliani, who supports gun control, gay rights, abortion rights and even accepted a donation from Bette Midler. "And many people believe she's been the driving force behind some of the most radical ideas that have been put forth by the Clinton Administration."

But no one should mistake the gentle sounds of "Kumbaya" coming from the Hillary 2000 headquarters as a sign that Giuliani will be the only one with a sharp tongue.

And Clinton's attacks are sneakier, since they slap the mayor for going negative, thus feeding into the impression that Giuliani can be a real nasty guy. "They can launch anti-Hillary websites," one Clinton fund-raising letter reads, "They can use their limitless warchest to run negative television ads. They can publish mean-spirited books and press releases. But they can never stop me for standing up for what I believe in."

At the end of January, Clinton hit back on the stump by trying to shove the letters down Giuliani's throat. That the mayor's been hitting up right-wing Clinton-haters for cash raises the question of whether Giuliani will be "beholden to the far right of the Republican Party and fringe groups," she told environmentalists in White Plains.

And amid the pomp and propaganda announcement of Clinton's candidacy on Sunday, the air was replete with nasty veiled dig after nasty veiled dig at Giuliani from her surrogates. She also took one direct jab at her opponent: "One other thing I'll fight against is the divisive politics of revenge and retribution," Clinton said. "If you put me in to work for you, I'll work to lift people up, not push them down."

Clinton's campaign has even gone so far as to hire an ad agency perhaps most famous for mocking the mayor. Last week, Hillary 2000 hired DeVito/Verdi, a SoHo ad agency that wrote a 1997 ad for New York magazine with the line: "Probably the only good thing in New York that Rudy hasn't taken credit for." Giuliani tried to have the ads removed from the sides of city buses, though the courts overruled him on First Amendment grounds. "We beat the mayor before, and we will beat him again," laughed Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, in a campaign press release.

As each day passes, it just slips that much more into ugliness. Staffers and ad agencies and everyone involved keeps getting pulled into the muck. Clinton spokesman Wolfson slammed Giuliani City Hall staffers Sunny Mindel and Rick Wilson for regularly engaging in campaign-related activities while purportedly punching the clock for New York.

And just as Hillary 2000 has hammered Giuliani's campaign for its ties to Viguerie, Giuliani's media consultant, Adam Goodman, on WNBC-TV on Sunday slammed DeVito/Verdi as "the ACLU's ad agency, which accused ... the policemen [allegedly involved in the Amadou Diallo killing] of murder before any trial, before any due process."

The snarls and snarks aren't new to politics, of course, but it is remarkable that they're coming so early -- some nine months before the election. Such cat fighting in the end could of course drive down voter turnout -- not unlike the way that the Bradley-Gore hissing did during the Iowa caucuses. This race, after all, has always risked becoming like the war between Iran and Iraq, with bystanders wondering who to root against.

By Jake Tapper

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

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Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani