The first lady talks up the town

The Big Apple took a shine to Hillary Rodham Clinton on her trip thisweek - but cynicism may dull the glitter.

As Hillary Rodham Clinton's motorcade sped across midtown toward New York's Plaza Hotel this week, the city's mayor was sitting in Washington touting New York's greatness before a House committee.

It was a perfect swap, a clear coincidence, just the kind that savvy New Yorkers like to think was anything but accidental. Particularly when it deals with two potential rivals: Washington's most powerful woman and the Big Apple's duly elected potentate - the two who could give New York the Senate race of the century, the political battle of the millennium. Just perfect for a city that considers itself the true "Hub of the Universe."

And with polls showing a matchup between the two tightening to a statistical dead heat, it would be a cliff hanger, the kind of nailbiter this still-edgy city could really get into.

But even as Mrs. Clinton inspired and fired up her faithful with this week's visit, many have growing doubts that the nation's first lady of families and children will want to take on New York's tough, crime-fighting king. Particularly in a city where even some of her admirers can be brutally frank.

"I'd like to hear what she has to say," said Barbara Klaus of Manhattan, who plunked down $1,000 to see the first lady. "I have a lot of doubts about her. If she can't manage her own marriage, how's she gonna handle the State of New York?"

But when Clinton stepped onto the stage of the Plaza's gilded Grand Ballroom, you couldn't tell there was a doubt in the room. The packed hall roared with applause and rose almost in unison to give her a sustained standing ovation.

The first lady, grinning and glowing in the spotlight, reached her arms forward and applauded back at the crowd.

This, clearly, was Hillary's crowd.

But the air of mutual admiration at this luncheon sponsored by the Democrats' Women's Leadership Forum was also charged with expectation and uncertainty. Planned months ago, it suddenly sold out when rumors began circulating that Clinton might actually take to the stump here in New York.

That brought out many of the 500 women (and a few scattered men) crowded around lunch tables in the ballroom, and the 400 more who watched the event via a monitor in an overflow room, and the 300 more left disappointed on the waiting list.

But as much as these upscale, liberal women might be "Hillary's crowd," they're also sophisticated and complex, with a host of questions and expectations of their own.

While they roared in approval as Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York announced it was time for a woman to represent the great state in the US Senate, a surprising number are quietly withholding judgment on the wisdom of a Clinton candidacy.

And that, too, could end up as an important factor in the first lady's final calculations.

"Some might think I have an announcement to make," she told the hushed crowd early on in her speech. "But I don't."

Scattered groans erupted - the loudest seeming to come from the press corp, which turned out en masse for the event.

"It looks like the Democratic convention," said one aide, shaking her head at the dozens of cameras crammed together at the back of the hall.

But the media weren't alone in their frustration. New Yorkers are not known for their patience.

"Well, I think it would be best if she would make her decision soon so other possible candidates can begin their fund-raising and active campaigns," said Linda Keim of Scarsdale, N.Y.

But the sense of disappointment was momentary.

As Clinton began recounting the progress women have made and reminding them of the responsibilities they still have to continue the work for other women and families, the crowd sat in rapt attention.

As she recounted the gains made during the six years of her husband's presidency, gains she translated into the everyday lives of individuals she met, the crowd roared and was ready when she called on them to take up the political cudgel.

"We cannot drop out of the political process and leave the arena to those with very specific agendas," Clinton said. "We cannot say, 'I won't be involved in politics because I don't like the negativity. I don't like all of the ads on television.' "

Indeed, the first lady said, women have a responsibility to "humanize politics."

For a city known for its liberal leanings, the speech hit the perfect note.

"People admire her tremendously now, she's got such great strength and courage - and she's very, very smart - a brilliant woman," said Barbara Peck, a child-welfare worker from Manhattan.

The sentiment echoed around the hall. "She understands what goes on with average people, has deep concerns about people who aren't necessarily middle class," said Dorothy Hibbert of Copiague, N.Y. "And regardless of how difficult the situation is, she feels she has to do her part in a leadership role in this country, and that's exactly what she's doing."

But even some of Clinton's staunchest supporters here think she may be better off someplace else.

"I think she's terrific, her ideas are just right, they're for all of us," said Carolyn Gottfried, who retired from the fashion industry. "She should run for president and leave New York out of it."

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