H.R.C. Loves N.Y.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton looks increasingly likely to run in 2000 for the United States Senate seat currently held by retiring Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D). It's getting harder to find a serious political observer who will predict otherwise - publicly, at least.

Yet many of those same observers frankly wonder why Mrs. Clinton is willing to put herself through New York's political meat-grinder. She already has a platform to air her views and push her causes, and that won't go away when her husband's presidency ends. A political race may only tarnish the respect she now enjoys from an overwhelming majority of Americans polled.

Clinton faces serious challenges: She's never run for nor held elected office. She's never lived in New York. Famously media-shy, she's about to undergo tough press coverage that's sure to drag up all her nightmares of the last 10 years: from Whitewater to missing law-firm billing records to her husband's impeachment.

In addition, the first lady may face a formidable GOP opponent: New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who boasts a take-no-prisoners style and a record of positive achievement. The two are near even in the polls.

But Mr. Giuliani has his own problems. He's feuded on and off with Republican Gov. George Pataki ever since endorsing Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994. In addition, New York mayors are rarely popular upstate, where Republicans roll up their majorities.

Not only that: Hizzoner may have a primary opponent in Rep. Rich Lazio of Long Island. Mr. Lazio will play to those who find the mayor's Republicanism a bit too liberal. Even if Giuliani wins, Lazio could stay on the ballot if he can get the Conservative Party nomination. That could split the GOP general-election vote, creating an opening for Clinton to ride to victory.

It could prove the hardest-fought Senate race in the country. Look for it to attract as much media attention as the presidential contest.

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