Why a Senate bid entices the first lady

It would give her a more professional profile, but it could also reopenscandals.

At first, the speculation began as idle chatter. The New York Democratic Party began blue-skying about having the first lady run for Senate. Then Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate's campaign committee, began talking it up. He's told Mrs. Clinton (read: begged) that he wants her on the ballot.

Then pollsters discovered that Clinton would have a good shot at winning the seat that's being vacated by Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Early this month, Quinnipiac College Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn., showed Clinton beating New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), who's thinking of running, 51 percent to 42 percent.

Now Clinton has addressed the matter: She's giving it "careful thought," she said in a statement Tuesday, and will make her final decision "later this year."

The timing of her decision could be a bit troublesome to New York Democrats, and to other possible Democratic candidates, who want to get going now raising money and preparing for a bruising battle.

But for Clinton, it's the decision of a lifetime. And it entails very large pros and cons. On the plus side, a run for the Senate allows her to break loose and become a serious political figure in her own right, not just as the spouse of the president. It also allows her to move beyond the humiliation of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"She's very, very popular right now, but it's not the image she wants," says political analyst Bill Schneider. "She has the image of a victim ... but she wants to be seen as an independent professional woman who has her own career."

As a Senate candidate, she would already have what most political wannabes can only dream of: universal name recognition and awesome fund-raising ability. If she won, she would have a platform from which to push her favorite policy issues, such as helping children.

And as a member of the Senate, she would also be well positioned to run for president. The current president opined early this week that she'd be a "great" senator.

Six more years

On the minus side, Clinton would have to think long and hard about signing up for six more years in Washington after her husband's term expires. She's had a pretty bumpy ride here and is leery of the press. If anything, the New York press corps is tougher than Washington's. All the old scandals would come back - her role in Whitewater, the White House travel office fiasco, the missing legal files - as well as her husband's various misadventures.

A big negative of life in the Senate is that it would limit her ability to make money, an important consideration in light of her and her husband's enormous legal bills (reportedly at more than $3 million and rising). Senators make $136,700 a year and are limited in their outside income.

As a footloose former first lady not tied down to a day job, Clinton would have the world at her feet: She could give highly lucrative speeches, serve on corporate and charitable boards, travel the world, and earn millions on her memoirs.

She would also be largely unavailable to help the Democrats campaign around the country, as the party tries to retake control of the House and Senate and keep the White House. If she were to run, she'd have to spend most of her time in New York until the election in November 2000.

New York has lax residency rules for officeholders, but New Yorkers wouldn't tolerate a run for the Senate in absentia, analysts say.

If Clinton were to win, she'd be following in the footsteps of two other illustrious last-minute New Yorkers: Sen. Robert Kennedy (D) in 1964 and Sen. James Buckley (R) in 1970.

Timing isn't everything

Some New York political observers pooh-pooh the idea that Clinton has to announce soon if she's going to run at all.

"It makes no sense for her to declare now," says Maureen Connelly, a New York political consultant who works for both parties. "The usual reason you declare early is to raise money. Should she declare, she'd be able to raise the funds in a snap. All this does is give your opponents and detractors time to take potshots at you."

Of course, any delay in a decision not to run puts any other Democratic candidates at a disadvantage. So far, of New York Democrats, Rep. Nita Lowey has made the most serious noises about running.

But Ms. Connelly has little sympathy for the New York state Democratic Party. "She didn't seek them out," she says. "They sought her out."

*Alexandra Marks in New York contributed to this story.

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