Next test: moving from celebrity to stump

Hillary Rodham Clinton begins to define positions, amid measured GOP

As Hillary Rodham Clinton passed through this college town, radio station WSRK started receiving phone calls from residents who saw her on the street or had a close encounter with her as she ate lunch at a local barbecue joint.

"It was a celebrity thing - we don't get people of the first lady's stature passing through," says Jeff Bishop, a news reporter for the FM station.

Over the next few weeks, Mrs. Clinton will face the next test in her flirtation with American retail politics by having to move from celebrity to candidate.

That will require a more thorough delineation of who she is, why she's running, and taking stands on issues that will inevitably alienate certain voters - and provide fodder for her rambunctious likely opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R).

Her first swing through the state last week was largely a matter of aura. She did prove she could perform in front of the national media. She didn't make any major mistakes - like asking when the Buffalo Bills last won a Super Bowl.

But the crowds were mostly friendly and treated her like royalty. She, in turn, showed the Clinton touch - stopping to talk to a child or work a room of senior citizens. "It's a big splash - they executed what they wanted to do," says Lee Miringoff of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

This week, polling organizations will be checking to see if all the column inches and air time helped Clinton's candidacy. Before her "listening tour," she had been losing voters in the polls.

She will follow up her maiden tour with a swing this week through New York suburbs - another key battleground in the Senate race and a Giuliani stronghold.

The early positive news stories are essential if Clinton is to win. Even with the race 16 months off, there are few undecided voters. "People all know what she's about, and some people love it, and some people don't," says John Faso, the Republican minority leader in the state Assembly. "At this stage, people basically have a fixed opinion whether Mrs. Clinton should run for the Senate in a state in which she has never voted in a school board election."

So far, the Republicans have had a pretty muted response to Clinton's campaign swing. The state committee has issued a few press releases calling her visit the "Blind Ambition Tour." But it has yet to load up its potent mudslinging machine. "It's really too early," says Mr. Faso. "You can't have 460 days of this - people will be burned out by the time of the election."

While Clinton spends a relaxed summer listening to New Yorkers, the Republicans are gearing up for the fall, when the campaign will really take off. Republican consultant Joseph Mercurio says Giuliani will probably stay away from the negative advertising that has characterized many of the Empire State's past races.

"He will not be responding to her - it won't be a classic kind of campaign," predicts Mr. Mercurio. "He'll be talking mainly about himself and his success stories."

Last week, Gov. George Pataki (R) indicated that he didn't foresee a GOP primary battle and that Giuliani would be the candidate. Despite their differences, he had only nice things to say about the mayor.

While the Republicans spend their summer getting ready for the election, Clinton is starting to take campaign positions. For example, on her tour she endorsed Jerusalem as the "eternal and indivisible" capital of Israel. This is in conflict with official State Department policy, but it is important in winning the powerful Jewish vote in New York.

Clinton is also starting to take stands on New York issues. For instance, she endorses the concept of federal legislation that would ensure New York's 8,300 dairy farmers get higher prices by joining a cartel that sets a minimum price paid to its members.

Giuliani opposes membership in the cartel because it would increase prices for consumers. By one estimate, milk would rise from $2.75 to $3.25 a gallon.

Clinton will have to continue to stake out positions on the issues to show that she knows something about the state. GOP consultant Mercurio says "the voters will quickly distinguish between the carpet-bagging first lady and Giuliani."

Indeed, some analysts doubt Clinton will have it easy in the weeks ahead. "She won't be treated like royalty forever," says Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia. "The bubble will burst at some point - probably sooner rather than later."

Yet Mr. Miringhoff thinks the carpetbagger issue is already fading. He advises the Republicans to pull back from it. "If I were them, I'd have Rudy go upstate and do some listening and learning also."

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