NEW YORK — On a drug-ridden corner in the aging industrial city of Troy in upstate New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani touts his success in fighting crime in his great downstate metropolis. It's a topic he rarely tires of, but last week he gave it a new twist. "Maybe you can make me your senator, and I can make this happen for the entire state," he told several dozen supporters and reporters.
With those words in that location, the mayor signaled a shift under way in the much-vaunted matchup with Hillary Rodham Clinton.
For the last nine months, both Mr. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton have been hinting, exploring, listening, and leaning toward running, but neither has declared and probably won't until after the millennium. Yet now the noncampaign is ratcheting up, taking on some of the long-awaited edge that everyone believes will make this one of the most entertaining, if not important, elections in 2000.
Mrs. Clinton went on the offensive last week by attacking the mayor, largely through surrogates, for flip-flopping on whether to raise the minimum wage. The mayor, who ventured out from his lair at City Hall, accused her of negativity as he began courting the important upstate vote.
The press, which has been reveling in this nonrace for months, delighted in the new scrappiness. But some pundits worry about the impact of such an early start on the real campaign. "We have another year to go and it could get tiresome," says pollster John Zogby.
The early and intense start of this non-campaign is unprecedented in New York history. Some contend its indicative of a national campaign-finance system run amok. Both candidates need to raise as much as $25 million each.
Others point to the media, who thrive on a good horserace and can't resist a feisty sound bite, which are in plentiful supply. And then there are the candidates themselves, larger-than-life characters with enough name recognition to engage in this slow and sometimes awkward waltz toward final campaign commitment.
"This is not a normal Senate race. It's not a campaign. It's a spectacle," says Ester Fuchs, a political scientist at Barnard College in New York.
Last Monday night, it turned into a glitzy, million-dollar Broadway spectacle for Clinton, who has been careful not to attack the mayor directly. But her star-studded birthday bash fund-raiser was peppered with gibes at Giuliani. The same day, the Clinton camp set up a "Flip Flop Watch" to alert voters to what they contend is the mayor's changing stance on raising the minimum wage.
"A month ago the mayor said he opposed the minimum wage increase. Now he says he's reconsidering," said Howard Wolfson, of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Exploratory Committee, in the first alert. "What's the hold-up? Rudy Giuliani has all the information he needs to flip-flop today."
Giuliani called that "one of the biggest canards I've ever heard," noting that he's said he'd support a minimum-wage increase only if it would have "very little impact" on the welfare to work in the city.
On Wednesday, he told an Albany, N.Y., radio station such negativity was "typical" of the Clintons. The Clinton camp is quick to point out that it was the mayor's people who set up a biting HillaryNo! Web site as early as last March.
Such back and forth has become typical in this noncampaign, which Professor Fuchs says is proving to be less about issues and more about tripping on issues. Clinton's decision not to support clemency for the FALN Puerto Rican terrorists and Giuliani's attack on the First Amendment and the Brooklyn Museum for showing "sick stuff" were typical misfires.
"Because the election is so many months away a lot of mistakes are going to be made on both sides," says Helen Desfosses, a political scientist at the State University of New York in Albany. "There's a lot of slalom skiing in politicking, and it will be a matter who can stay on his or her feet and how the winds are blowing closer to the election."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society