At a packed fund-raiser for women Democrats at New York's Plaza Hotel recently, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton awed former fashion executive Carolyn Gottfried.
After the speech, she gushed that Mrs. Clinton was "terrific." Her ideas are "just right for all of us." Then she added a caveat: "She should run for president - and leave New York out of it."
While the first lady would likely get Ms. Gottfried's vote, her ambivalence highlights a major challenge Clinton would face if she makes a historic run for the US Senate from New York.
As she moves inexorably toward a bid that could set up one of the marquee matchups of modern times, a top priority for her is to shore up the support of core Democratic supporters - none more important than women.
Indeed, women, who should be among her staunchest allies, could cause the first lady almost as many problems as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) and his celebrated reputation as a dogged campaigner. Clinton still captures more of the women's vote than Mr. Giuliani, her likely opponent, in polls. But her support is considered soft - a disturbing sign for a Democrat in New York, particularly one who has championed women's rights throughout her career.
"It's extremely important she solidify the women's vote," says John Zogby, a pollster based in Utica, N.Y. "It's traditionally a strongly Democratic vote."
To be sure, Clinton has other constituencies to worry about as she begins a high-profile campaign swing through the state. On July 7, she arrives at the bucolic hideaway of retiring Sen. Patrick Moynihan in upstate New York for what she hopes will be a symbolic passing of the Democratic mantle in the 2000 election.
It comes one day after she officially set up an exploratory committee. Already, she's got a freshly painted campaign office in Manhattan and plans to visit the state throughout the summer. Her formal announcement is expected this fall.
Overall, polls show a race with Giuliani would be tight, tough, and garner national attention as the heir to the Clinton legacy takes on a new breed of moderate - some say liberal - Republican. Certainly for Mrs. Clinton, the stakes are high. It's her first run for elective office - a center-stage test after a lifetime of playing understudy to her husband.
The importance of the women's vote in New York was underscored in the last two presidential elections, when more women voted than men. It was women voters who put Bill Clinton over the top, with 56 percent voting for him in 1992, and 64 percent in 1996.
With Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore trailing Republican George W. Bush by 11 points in New York, pundits say it's that much more important for Clinton to energize New York's base of female voters. But polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that support is less than rock solid.
Last week, two surveys showed her support weakening overall - and in particular upstate and with women. The Zogby International Poll of likely voters had her trailing Giuliani by 10 points. Among women, she led only 46 to 44 points. In a Quinnipiac College Poll, her lead shrank to a statistical dead heat overall. But she still had a 52-to-38 point edge among women.
Analysts note it's still early in the race, and the candidates have yet to articulate their issues. "She's pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-gun control - these are all majority opinions in New York," says Ester Fuchs, a political scientist at Barnard College here.
One reason analysts believe Clinton's support at this point appears so shallow is the so-called carpetbagger issue. While the first lady has been house-hunting and says she plans to live in New York whether she runs or not, she has not quelled many concerns. Indeed, her donning of a New York Yankees cap and flashes of memory of "driving through" Elmira appear to be backfiring, particularly upstate. "There's something that doesn't smell right about it," says Mr. Zogby. "People wonder, 'Should New York be used as a stepping stone?' "
In a Quinnipiac Poll earlier this year, 42 percent of women said it "bothers" them that she's not a state resident. Only 29 percent believed Clinton had a better understanding than Giuliani of the "problems and important issues" facing New York. Just 43 percent thought she was "more honest and trustworthy" than Giuliani.
"I have a gut instinct that she breeds trouble, " says Marjorie Gaba, a working mother from Larchmont. But Ms. Gaba also says she'd probably vote for Clinton. "I think she's absolutely intelligent. She has some excellent policy ideas."
Pollster Lee Miringoff attributes such sentiments in part to scandal "fatigue" with the Clintons. And it's early in the race. "She has yet to offer her rational answer to: 'Why New York and why now?' " he says.
Ms. Gaba is also from the suburbs, one of New York's three distinct regions. About 30 percent of the state's voters, suburbanites usually lean Republican. In the Quinnipiac Poll, Giuliani won overall, beating Clinton 2 to 1 among men. Among women, the race was even.
In upstate, where 42 percent of New York voters live, Giuliani also wins overall. And the gender gap that had upstate women favoring Clinton just a month ago has now disappeared. Here, too, the carpetbagger issue is important to women. "It's odd that she's establishing residency here. I don't know how she can have her finger on the pulse," says Peg Clement, a single mother from Delmar, near Albany.
Ironically, it's New York City - Giuliani's hometown - where Clinton still shines. She beats the mayor 63 to 29 percent - dominating among women in particular. Analysts say she's got to win at least 70 percent of the city vote to carry the state.
Still, she can't write off the suburbs and upstate. And many women say she is already beginning to energize a dispirited Democratic Party, especially upstate. Helen Desfosses, president of the Albany Common Council, believes a Clinton candidacy will be a "real unifying factor."